FAIRBURY – As in most other locations in 2021, you will see signs reading “Help Wanted” in Fairbury. The owners of a diner here closed and reopened during the pandemic with personnel challenges. But you see more optimism here than in most rural communities.
The connection with food producers in the area has helped this community thrive during the pandemic.
“2021 is our best year ever – by far,” said Marty Travis, who and his son Will grow organic, heirloom and fruit trees at Spence Farms, Livingston County’s oldest farm.
You also run Down at the Farms, a food distribution service based in Fairbury. They deliver organic produce and food grown by more than 60 farmers in Central Illinois to chefs, grocers, individuals and institutions in Chicago, which is more than two and a half hours away.
“Over the past 18 years, the economy around local food has been tremendous for this community,” said Travis. “We’re bringing food to Chicago. The money comes back and we pass it on to the community. “
Part of the prosperity can be attributed to Travis’ foresight. He heard about COVID-19 in early 2020 and spoke to his chefs about a plan in case things shut down.
“Will and I had to find out what to do when this happened,” he said.
It happened. In a week in March, they stopped delivering 30-40 restaurants in Chicago to just three.
Will used social media to spread the word that fresh, organic produce from central Illinois was available to Chicago residents. Soon they had an email list of 200 people who wanted to buy it.
“It was very successful,” said Travis.
“We are realizing the tremendous untapped opportunity in central Illinois and everywhere,” said Travis. “People want this food that farmers can produce. It can go to individual families. “
As the demand for food from central Illinois grew, Down at the Farms opened a warehouse and collection point in rural Fairbury that year. The farmers hand in their products and they are transported by truck to Chicago, Peoria or Champaign.
Down at the Farms has 14 full-time employees.
Four of the nine Steidinger children are among the employees who meet in Fairbury at 5 a.m. on a Wednesday to pack food. Cora, 11, is the youngest. Her brother Jonathan shows off his forklift driving skills to load the truck, and the team hand-loaded a second truck, which has 21 stops in Chicago, with Will instructing which products to load in which order.
Products loaded include meat and milk from Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury,
“Marty helped us see that we could do it. He found opportunities in the city that we didn’t know about and took them, ”says Jenna Kilgus, who runs a dairy and a shop with other locally produced products with her family.
“It helped us stay afloat during COVID.”
Kilgus Farmstead made adjustments to meet consumer demand during the pandemic. It addressed bottlenecks in packaging, including milk cans. It was feeling the effects of the supply chain slowdown and labor shortages in restaurants.
“There are still not enough restaurants open to reach our full capacity,” said Kilgus.
She hopes local food will be valued more now as people can see how quickly the traditional supply chain can be broken.
More farmers needed
More than 70 farmers take part in Down at the Farms today. Most of them are certified organic, all of them follow organic principles. Education and plant advice are available to them, Travis said.
He attributes his success to reducing competition, strengthening cooperation and “that everyone has to make a profit in the end”.
Travis said it feels like he’s walking forward with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake to make sure they’re growing at the right rate. He is looking for at least 20 more farmers to meet the expected needs for the next year.
Uber Chicago will be a big buyer of Central Illinois products next year. The company provides its drivers with meals twice a day. When fully occupied, that means meals for between 1,500 and 2,000 drivers from local farms.
And a major grocer in Chicago will soon start supplying restaurants that didn’t have access to Down at the Farms’ current routes.
“This is just the beginning,” said Travis, author of “My Farmer, My Customer: Building Business & Community Through Farming Healthy Food,” a book that provides a guide for other communities to adapt this idea to their needs.
The city of Fairbury was selected to see how small rural communities develop relationships around food in a Smithsonian touring exhibition in 2023, he said.
Lorraine Palen, a longtime resident of nearby Forrest, Illinois, often comes to Fairbury for the gym, grocery store, or restaurant.
“Fairbury has come a long way lately,” said Palen, whose son is a grain farmer in the area.
On a sunny Saturday, she was visiting Diner 24, a Route 66-style diner in Fairbury, with her sister Rita Rogers, who had recently moved here from Arlington Heights, a suburb of Chicago. They said that in Fairbury they can find anything they want including a hairdresser.
Sam Mehmedi, who works with his son Adie, who owns this diner, said it had been difficult to keep the diner going due to staff shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he said the locals supported it and things will turn out to be alluring during the summer fairway speedway racing season.
“It’s a nice little town. It supports local businesses, ”said Mehmedi.
Livingston County Assistant Gail Huling has lived in Fairbury all her life. She says the community’s secret to success is “neighbors take care of neighbors”.
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