“I decided at some point that if Bloomington was gonna be a cool town, I needed to do my part to make it cool” – Chris Stenger, Farmer-Owner of Useful Yard Company.
Within the confines of a quiet neighborhood where the homes all have the same bones, each yard passed on the drive to the Useful Yard Company, shares insight to the diverse personalities in each home through bright colored flower pots, kids toys, handmade porch benches, and other personal touches. Each yard leads into another right up to the joyous personality of the Useful Yard Company — a permaculture-focused urban farm in Bloomington, IL, providing plants, produce, consulting, and, surprisingly, (for a select crowd) even backyard concerts!
With a front yard seemingly packed with plants, a closer inspection reveals a careful rhythm to the plantings: Currant bushes march a circle path around a serviceberry centerpiece. Lavender blooms spill past strawberry leaves and wildflowers sparkle in unexpected places. Without any rigidity, the first exposure to Useful Yard Company is a visual statement of a commitment to using every available bit of space creatively in concert with plants. It’s a beautiful introduction and Chris takes great joy sharing each of the hidden joys as we begin touring the farm.
The front yard plot is a relatively new change to the property. An opportunity to create positive change presented itself after a sewer upgrade churned up most of the previous grass and a good chunk of driveway. As Chris leads me through to the back yard, each carefully designed area comes with its story of implementation and subsequent changes. Very little of our conversation veers to the limitations of the property, Chris instead sharing each adaptation with pride. To use modern slang – this farm is full of “good vibes” and they all start with the farmer.
In the backyard, past carefully organized raised beds lined up to maximize available sunlight, a beautiful old sycamore stands tall covered in a tapestry of dappled bark and leaves. Sitting directly in the center, modern sentiment would seem to argue against such a large tree’s continued existence, if the goal was to maximize space for an urban farm. Another example of the harmony at Useful Yard Company, Chris explains the design that allows him to maximize full sun before the sycamore’s late leaf out then maximize the cooling effect of the open canopy and mixed sun and shade.
That dappled shade creates the ambiance for the only open grass – an area set aside just past the sycamore and before a unique urban orchard and custom combination shed and backyard stage. There are not a lot of people who can lay claim to hosting popular regional bands a few times a year for an invite only crowd at their backyard “listening” venue. Chris tells me about a choice he and his partner had to make many years ago: “I decided at some point that if Bloomington was gonna be a cool town, I needed to do my part to make it cool,” he said.
There isn’t a part of the property that doesn’t serve a purpose – living up to the farm name and showcasing just how a yard can usefully serve as a space for food, entertaining, memories, people and nature all at the same time. A lot of folks set out to farm and find the property after – often a little short of what they wanted, a little too small, a little too far from where they’d like it to be, a little recurring frustration that they’re quick to voice. Chris set out to enjoy where he and his family live and grew into farming along the way. The difference between those mindsets is huge. After more than twenty years, Chris’s land has been tuned and re-tuned until the melody is clear and the harmony resonates among all the separate pieces. Whether he’s farming, hosting a concert, visiting a client’s property, or selling at a farmers market, Chris is cultivating a better Bloomington.