By Steve Raymond
News Report Staff
Chuck Hartke has been on the farm his entire life.
There are those that remember him as a former politician, having served 18 years for Illinois’ 108th District in the House of Representatives and nearly five years as the state’s Director of the Department of Agriculture.
But these days, the 74-year-old is back to his home roots, far from the statehouse and all the scuffling that goes on these days in Springfield.
Chuck is once again busy on his farm east of Teutopolis.
But he’s not spending time in the cornfield or the hog lot.
Today, you will most likely catch him working in his greenhouse. He’ll probably be wearing a T-shirt, shorts and a cap. His hands will be dirty, sweat will be running down his face and that T-shirt will be soaked through due to the early summer temperatures that can make that greenhouse stifling.
And he’s having a great time.
Instead of raising corn and beans in the field, he’s now busy growing flowers and vegetables.
And lots of them.
“I’m a farmer,” Chuck said. “I like seeing things grow.”
During the peak time, there will be as many as 20,000 plants in that greenhouse. There will be close to 70 different varieties of flowers, plus multiple kinds of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and herbs, just to name a few.
And they’re all being raised for a good cause.
It’s true that Chuck has a real passion for the farm, and as he says, “growing things.” But he also has a passion to help Community Support Systems.
And Chuck’s Greenhouse is doing exactly that.
He sells those plants and vegetables to anyone that wants them. The price?
“I don’t charge a thing. It’s all on the honor system,” Chuck explained. “When people ask how much, I just tell them whatever they want to give. Most people are very generous, although some not so much. This is a way I can help CSS. They need funds desperately.”
When Chuck first opened his greenhouse in 2010, he made a donation of approximately $900. Last year, it was $6,594. And just last week, he donated $8,360.
“This is the probably the largest individual donation we receive,” said Tonya Blair, the administrative secretary at Community Support Systems. “It really makes a difference.”
Blair said the money is put into the organization’s donation account. It is used to offset the shortage of funds received from the State of Illinois.
“The state provides between 75 and 80 percent of the funds we use to provide our services,” Blair explained. “We do fundraisers and rely on donations like Chuck makes to offset the difference.”
But how did this all get started?
“Before my wife Kathy passed away, she used to buy all the bedding plants,” Chuck recalled. “But when I started the greenhouse, I had more flowers started than she could use. She suggested I sell them and give the donations I received to CSS.”
That generous act has since grown into something much bigger.
In 2009, things got underway when Chuck built the greenhouse.
“We had an old hog barn, but it was structurally unsound,” he noted. “We had always wanted a greenhouse, so we saved what we could from the hog barn and started building. The tables are from the slats in that barn and the roof is from an old carport. The fans are also from the old hog barn, plus we’ve got an oil furnace in here. We just put it all together.”
Chuck said the first year “was a disaster. I really didn’t know what I was doing. That first year, I planted seeds in unsterile soil. That was a mistake. When things grew, we didn’t know if it was a weed or a tomato.
“But we learned,” he quickly added. “We learned how and when to properly plant all these seeds. We also learned how to apply feed and water. We learned a lot.”
Each year, the amount of donation has continued to grow. More and more people are purchasing flowers and vegetables from Chuck’s Greenhouse and leaving generous donations in the box at the front of the greenhouse.
Chuck begins working in the greenhouse early each March.
Since there aren’t any lights, he works in there during the daylight hours, putting in approximately six hours just about every day until everything is planted. The greenhouse opens in mid-April and generally closes the first week in June. When the “Chuck’s Greenhouse” sign is out, the greenhouse is open.
“I’m retired and don’t have a lot else to do,” Chuck said. “But I can do this. And if it helps CSS, I’m glad. That’s a great organization.”