FAIRBURY — You will see “help wanted” signs in Fairbury like most other places in 2021. The owners of a diner here have closed and reopened during the pandemic with staffing challenges. But here you see more optimism than in most rural communities.
The connection to food producers in the surrounding areas has helped this community thrive during the pandemic.
“2021 is our best year ever — by a whole lot,” said Marty Travis, who grows organic produce, heirloom grains and fruit trees with his son Will at Spence Farms, the oldest farm in Livingston County.
They also head Down at the Farms, a food distribution service based in Fairbury. They deliver organic produce and foods grown by more than 60 Central Illinois farmers to chefs, grocers, individuals and institutions in Chicago, more than two and a half hours away.
“For the last 18 years, economic development around local foods has been enormous for this community,” Travis said. “We take food to Chicago. The money comes back and we pass it around the community.”
Some of the prosperity can be attributed to Travis’ forethought. In early 2020, he began to hear about COVID-19 and talked to his chefs about having a plan if things shut down.
“Will and I had to figure out what to do if this did happen,” he said.
It happened. In one week in March, they went from delivering produce to 30-40 Chicago restaurants to only three.
Will used social media to get the word out 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 hugely successful,” Travis said.
“We realize the huge untapped possibilities in Central Illinois and everywhere,” Travis said. “People want this food farmers can produce. It can go to individual families.”
As demand for Central Illinois food grew, Down at the Farms opened a warehouse and aggregation point in rural Fairbury this year. Farmers drop off their products and it is trucked to Chicago, Peoria or Champaign.
Down at the Farms has 14 full-time employees.
Among the staff gathering at 5 a.m. on a recent Wednesday in Fairbury to pack food are four of the nine Steidinger kids. Cora, 11, is the youngest. Her brother, Jonathan, shows his skills driving the forklift to load the truck, and the team loaded a second truck, which has 21 stops in Chicago, by hand, with Will directing which products were to be loaded and in what order.
Among the products being loaded are meat and milk from Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury,
“Marty has helped us see we could do this. He found opportunities in the city that we didn’t know and grabbed them,” said Jenna Kilgus, who with her family, operates a dairy and store with other locally produced products.
“It helped us stay afloat during COVID.”
Kilgus Farmstead has made adjustments to consumer demand during the pandemic. It dealt with shortages of packaging, including milk jugs. It felt the effect of supply chain slowdowns and labor shortages in restaurants.
“There’s still not enough restaurants open to take our full capacity,” Kilgus said.
She hopes there may be more appreciation of local foods now that people can see how quickly the traditional supply chain can be broken.
More farmers needed
More than 70 farmers participate in Down at the Farms today. Most are certified organic, all follow organic principles. Education and crop consulting is available to them, Travis said.
He attributes his success to lessening competition, raising cooperation and “understanding that everyone has to make a profit at the end of the day.”
Travis said it feels like he is moving ahead with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake, making sure they grow at the right speed. He is looking for at least 20 more farmers to meet the expected needs next year.
Uber Chicago will be a big buyer of Central Illinois products next year. The company provides meals for its drivers twice a day. When they are fully staffed, than means meals for between 1,500 and 2,000 drivers from locally sourced farms.
And a large produce distributor in Chicago will soon start delivering to restaurants which haven’t had access to Down at the Farms current routes.
“It’s just the beginning,” said Travis, author of “My Farmer, My Customer: Building Business & Community Through Farming Healthy Food,” a book that is a road map for other communities to adapt this idea to their needs.
The City of Fairbury has been has been selected to be featured in a 2023 traveling Smithsonian exhibit about how small rural communities develop relationships around food, he said.
Lorraine Palen, a longtime resident of nearby Forrest, Ill., often comes to Fairbury to go to the gym, grocery story or to a restaurant.
“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 diner in Fairbury, with her sister, Rita Rogers, who recently moved here from Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb. They said they can find everything they want in Fairbury, including a hairdresser.
Sam Mehmedi who works with his son, Adie, who owns this diner, said it has been hard to keep the diner going with staff shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he said locals have supported it and things will pick up during Fairway Speedway racing season in the summer.
“It’s a nice little town. It supports local businesses,” Mehmedi said.
Gail Huling, Livingston County deputy clerk, has lived in Fairbury her whole life. She says the secret to the success of the community is “neighbors take care of neighbors.”