Contributing More Than Calories: The Fairbury Local Food Project
by Sarah Hultine, University of Missouri Extension, December 2007
In 1770, writer Oliver Goldsmith penned the line: “E’en now, methinks, as pondering here I stand, I see the rural virtues leave the land.” And today, more than 200 years later, we still bemoan the disappearance of small family farms, loss of farmland to development, the exodus of rural youth, and the near demise of the farming “way of life.”1 Yet amidst this loss we are fortunate to see challenges to these trends – however small or slow-growing they may be. Farmers and residents alike are creating new opportunities for their rural communities through collaborations within the community and commitments to the shared values of sustainable agriculture, healthy food and the support of locally owned businesses.
Fairbury, Illinois, a community of 4,000, located about 115 miles southwest of Chicago, is a typical rural town. Fairbury is home to one grocery store, a small consolidated school district, and a few of the requisite chain businesses, yet the town is unique in its support for its locally and independently owned businesses that contribute to an active downtown business center. Agriculture also plays an important role in and around Fairbury, with 90 percent of land in the county used for farmland.2
In 2004, a small group of direct-market farmers began collaborating with the co-owners of the local, independently-owned supermarket in Fairbury – Dave’s Supermarket – to initiate an “indoor farmers’ market” inside the grocery store. The farmers wanted to provide Fairbury residents with food grown locally and without pesticides, while finding viable markets for their farm products in their own community. The supermarket sees the sales of local produce from local farmers as a public relations tool to continue to draw in customers and help support their local farmers. The business arrangement between the store and farmers is simple: the farmers stock the shelves with their local products, and the store advertises and provides codes for the products to scan through the checkout lines. The supermarket receives a twenty percent cut from the local sales, with the rest of the sale going directly to the farmers. In the three seasons since the project began, sales of local produce in the supermarket have grown from $1,000 in the first year to nearly $5,000 in 2006, and the farmers expect to double their sales in the store in 2007.
To sit in on one of the Fairbury farmer meetings as they plan their growing season and products for Dave’s Supermarket is a chance to view the diversity contained within the group – not only among the producers themselves (full-time farmers and small market gardeners, homemakers, students, teachers, natural resource professionals and more) – but also in the range of products being produced by the group members. Chicken, turkey, eggs, heirloom tomatoes, five different colors of potatoes, hot peppers, sweet peppers, and fruit don’t begin to hint at the variety of products that the producers experimented with in 2007. These meetings provide a chance for the producers to discuss ideas for their shelves in Dave’s Supermarket (yellow wax beans don’t sell well in Dave’s, but little gold tomatoes, spinach and potatoes disappear off the shelves almost as fast as the farmers can stock them), brainstorm marketing strategies (the farmers are developing a brochure to advertise their farms), give advice about production techniques (the best method for dealing with pests organically is a common topic), and share the responsibilities for keeping the group running (accounting, marketing, and communication with new markets, among other tasks). These meetings also provide an opportunity for the producers to share and reinforce their goals and values for the Fairbury local food project and their own farming operations. The group has incorporated as a limited liability company (LLC), in order to expand their market presence and provide services such as insurance and labeling. Although none of the farmers are currently certified organic, all of the producers have agreed to follow the organic standards for their farms, and the farmers market their products as “naturally grown.” The farmers have also agreed to support and encourage young students to participate in the farmers’ group. In the past two seasons, several high school students have raised vegetables and chickens for Dave’s Supermarket, and are participating this year as well. The farmers feel that this is an opportunity to encourage young people to stay in the community, and to learn valuable skills in farming, marketing and business development. Part of the farmers’ commitment to these young beginning farmers is that the young participants can become members of the LLC, without paying the membership fee until they are 18 years old or reach a specified sales level.
The Fairbury local food project has been an experiment in trial and error with a healthy shot of successes that continue to encourage the farmers, store owners and the Fairbury community. This year, the farmers have more requests for their local products than they could possibly supply – several local restaurants, another grocery store, the school district, and numerous markets in Chicago and suburbs are all clamoring for whatever local products the Fairbury farmers can supply. Notes from customers in the community express their appreciation for the products that the farmers are supplying, and the project has been the focus of news articles in local, statewide and national newspapers, as well as the subject of a University of Illinois research project. The Dave’s Supermarket owners see the local products as a unique opportunity to distinguish their store from other county grocery stores, and have had many positive comments from the community about the local food. The mayor of the community, as well as other local leaders, see the increase in market gardeners and increased demand for locally grown food as an opportunity to facilitate entrepreneurship within their community, and a chance to draw in tourists who visit the farms and community.
In only four seasons, the producer group has grown from three participating farms to 16 farms for the 2007 season. The Fairbury local food project serves as a model for other rural communities looking for unique ways to develop their own local food systems and support local farmers. The Fairbury farmers and Dave’s Supermarket are demonstrating that locally grown food provides more than just a healthy meal for residents, but also provides for a healthier rural community by supporting small family farms, creating new social networks and building wealth that stays within the local community.
1 For examples of literature on current trends in rural communities and agriculture, see Berry, W. 1999. “Conserving Farm-Raised Children.” The Progressive: 41; and Ikerd, J. 2000. “Crisis and Opportunity in North American Agriculture.” In Recapturing Wealth on the Canadian Prairies. Brandon, Manitoba.
2 U.S. Census of Agriculture, 2002.