ST. ELMO — Life’s journey has taken Frank Viramontes a long way, seemingly from one world to another. And he isn’t looking back.
The Mexico native certainly never imagined years ago that he would become a farmer, let alone a farmer in a village more than a thousand miles from his hometown in a different country. And while his operation is small, it represents the hopes and dreams of many looking for something more in life.
Viramontes grew up in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas, where his family had a small orchard. He sought prosperity and decided that it could be found in the north.
“I moved from Mexico to look for a better life,” he said.
But at first he didn’t look in farm country. Instead, his initial destination was Chicago. For 20 years, he made a living working in restaurants there.
Then another life beckoned. A friend who had a small vegetable operation in Xenia, about 200 miles south of Chicago, suggested that Viramontes purchase a plot of land in nearby Fayette County and try out the farming life.
He purchased the 65-acre farm in 1990, planting apple and peach trees. In 2003, he made the permanent move from Chicago and is embracing the farming life. He has expanded the operation, planting an acre of strawberries a few years ago, and growing pumpkins and other crops.
Viramontes may be a self-made man, but he is grateful for help he has received over the years from University of Illinois Extension educators and from his neighbors. He learned about the generosity of the community when the farm house burned down about five years ago.
No one was hurt, but most of the family’s belongings were lost.
“The community got together, and in two days I had more stuff than was originally in my house,” he said. “They responded right away. I have a lot of friends here.”
His focus is largely on his family. He and his wife, Irma, have five children, who all help out on the farm when they can. The oldest, Victoria, is studying speech therapy at Southern Illinois University. Another is considering becoming a dentist.
“Education is No. 1,” Viramontes said. “I’ve been making a little money to help them go to school. If they go to school and do something else, they’ll be OK. But any of them who want to come back to the farm, that’s OK too.”
He markets most of his goods from a storefront at the orchard. On weekends Viramontes sells produce at a flea market in the Chicago area. Meanwhile, he is raising his family in the peaceful environs of rural Illinois.
“We decided to come down south and raise the kids,” he said. “So far, I think I did the right thing.”
He has no plans to leave his adopted home.
“Everyone knows me around here,” Viramontes said, adding with a smile, “I’m stuck with these people because I owe them a lot.”