Fairbury is doing well during pandemic thanks to local food, Chicago markets | Business

FAIRBURY – You’ll see ‘help wanted’ signs in Fairbury like most other places in 2021. The owners of a restaurant here have closed and reopened during the pandemic with staff issues. But here you see more optimism than in most rural communities.

Connecting with food producers in surrounding areas has helped this community thrive during the pandemic.

“2021 is our best year ever by far,” said Marty Travis, who grows organics, ancient grains and fruit trees with his son Will at Spence Farms, Livingston County’s oldest farm.

They are also heading to Down at the Farms, a Fairbury-based food distribution service. They deliver organic produce and foods grown by more than 60 central Illinois farmers to chefs, grocers, individuals and institutions in Chicago, over two and a half hours away.

“Over the past 18 years, the economic development around local food has been tremendous for this community,” Travis said. “We bring 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. In early 2020, he started hearing about COVID-19 and spoke to his bosses about having a plan if things stopped.

“Will and I had to figure out what to do if this happened,” he said.

It happened. In a week in March, they went from delivering products to 30 to 40 Chicago restaurants to just three.

Will took to social media to let it be known that fresh organic produce from central Illinois was available to residents of Chicago. Soon they had a mailing list of 200 people who wanted to buy it.

“It was a huge success,” Travis said.

“We realize the huge untapped opportunities in central Illinois and everywhere,” Travis said. “People want this food that farmers can produce. It can go to individual families.

As demand for food in central Illinois increased, Down at the Farms opened a warehouse and assembly point in rural Fairbury this year. Farmers drop off their produce and it is trucked to Chicago, Peoria or Champaign.

Down at the Farms has 14 full-time employees.

Among the staff assembled at 5 a.m. on a recent Wednesday in Fairbury to pack food are four of the nine Steidinger children. Cora, 11, is the youngest. His brother, Jonathan, shows off his skills by driving the forklift to load the truck, and the team loaded a second truck, which has 21 stops in Chicago, by hand, with Will indicating which products should be loaded and in what order. .

Among the products loaded are 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 and took them, ”said Jenna Kilgus, who, with her family, operates a dairy and a store with other local produce.

“It has helped us stay afloat during COVID. “

Kilgus Farmstead has made adjustments to consumer demand during the pandemic. He was dealing with shortages of packaging, including jugs of milk. It has been impacted by supply chain slowdowns and labor shortages in restaurants.

“There are still not enough restaurants open to take our full capacity,” Kilgus said.

She hopes local foods will be better appreciated now that people can see how quickly the traditional supply chain can be broken.

Need more farmers

Over 70 farmers are participating in Down at the Farms today. Most are certified organic, all follow organic principles. Education and advice on crops are available to them, Travis said.

He attributes his success to less competition, increased cooperation, and “the understanding that everyone has to make a profit at the end of the day.”

Travis said he felt like stepping forward with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake, making sure they were growing at the right speed. He is looking for at least 20 additional farmers to meet the needs expected next year.

Uber Chicago will be a big buyer of goods from central Illinois next year. The company provides meals to its drivers twice a day. When full, that means meals for between 1,500 and 2,000 drivers from locally sourced farms.

And a large distributor of produce in Chicago will soon begin delivering to restaurants that haven’t had access to the current Down at the Farms routes.

“This is just the start,” said Travis, author of “My Farmer, My Customer: Building Business & Community Through Farming Healthy Food,” a book that is a roadmap for other communities to adapt this idea. to their needs.

The town of Fairbury was selected to feature in a 2023 Smithsonian traveling exhibit on how small rural communities develop relationships around food, he said.

Lorraine Palen, a longtime resident of nearby Forrest, Illinois, often comes to Fairbury to go to the gym, shop for groceries, or eat out.

“Fairbury has really come a long way recently,” said Palen, whose son is a grain farmer in the area.

On a sunny Saturday, she visited Diner 24, a Route 66-style restaurant in Fairbury, with her sister, Rita Rogers, who recently moved here from Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb. They said they could find anything they wanted in Fairbury including a hairdresser.

Sam Mehmedi, who works with his son, Adie, owner of this restaurant, said it had been difficult to keep the restaurant running with staff shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he said the locals backed him and things would pick up during Fairway Speedway summer racing season.

“It’s a nice little town. It supports local businesses, ”Mehmedi said.

Livingston County Assistant Clerk Gail Huling has lived in Fairbury her entire life. She says the secret to the success of the community is that “the neighbors take care of the neighbors”.


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