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How Illinois Farms Are Staying Afloat

With restaurant accounts disappearing, local farmers are exploring virtual farmers’ markets and new delivery services.

Vegetables from Nichols Farm in Marengo   Photo: Courtesy of Nichols Farm & Orchard

Trent Sparrow, owner of Catalpa Grove Farm in Dwight, about 80 miles southwest of Chicago, usually doesn’t follow the news too closely. On March 15, he was overseeing the birth of lambs when Governor J.B. Pritzker announced a statewide ban on dine-in restaurants to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. That day, like every Sunday, Sparrow sent out his weekly availability list of humanely raised heritage-breed pigs, lambs, and goats to his 40 restaurant customers, which include the Bristol and Publican Quality Meats.

“I started getting messages back from a few, like, ‘We don’t know what we’re going to do; we might be closed,’” Sparrow says. “Then suddenly they’re all saying, ‘We’re closing for at least three weeks, we won’t need anything.’”

Over the course of a few hours, he watched his customer list dwindle to four accounts, which includes Pub Royale and Baker Miller. But that didn’t stop Catalpa Grove’s 500 animals from needing to be fed or reaching market weight, as farms like his typically work eight months to a year in advance.

“It’s a sizable investment you’ve got in an animal, so we’re trying to start doing some retail,” Sparrow says. “That’s a whole other beast, like rebuilding an entire market. But we’re going to try. Everybody’s still gotta eat, right?”

That means Sparrow’s farm of two — the other half being co-owner/wife Jackie Sparrow — now has to create a functioning online marketplace and home delivery system, then get the word out. That’s not to mention re-evaluating and repricing the processing of meat cuts based on what home cooks, not chefs, want.

“People aren’t going to buy nine-rib lamb racks, french the bones out, and make their own lollipops,” Sparrow says.

Sheep out to pasture at Catalpa Grove Farm   Photo: Courtesy of Catalpa Grove Farm

Similar existential crises are playing out across small farms feeling the ripple effects of Chicago’s devastated hospitality industry. Restaurants that haven’t closed are relying on pared-down takeout and delivery menus, and many don’t have the cash on hand to pay rent, let alone suppliers like Sparrow. As a result, farmers must also pivot — to home deliveries, urban pickups, and virtual farmers’ markets — to generate cash flow while they weigh how to approach a spring season full of unknowns.

“Like everyone right now, farmers are really struggling and facing a ton of uncertainty,” says Melissa Flynn, executive director of Green City Market. “I have spoken to a number who are weighing their options: Do I plant or do I not?”

Green City Market had to close its indoor farmers’ market at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to comply with the city mandate of keeping group sizes under 10 people. With no guidelines in sight for when the outdoor market might safely open (it’s currently slated for the first Saturday in May), GCM created Green City Market Delivered, a virtual farmers’ market that went live on March 27 on the WhatsGood app and sourcewhatsgood.com.

“For a lot of farmers, their business relies on those direct-to-consumer purchases, so the virtual market is a lifeline for them,” Flynn says. “They get immediate shoppers now and make sure they stay connected to those customers, which is something they need now more than ever.”

Just like the real-life market, users can browse and add fruits and vegetables, prepared foods, jam, flowers, potted herbs, meat, and baked items from more than 30 vendors and counting. Their online payment goes directly to farmers after GCM takes 10 percent to cover credit card fees, tech fees, and aggregation costs.

For now, the app and site take orders through Tuesday at noon for home delivery on Wednesday between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. After processing more than 100 orders on the first day and quickly selling out the first two weeks, GCM announced it would add a Saturday date to meet demand, which starts April 11.

Nichols Farm & Orchard sold roughly 80 orders of fruit and veggies in GCM Delivered’s first week. The farm had already gone live with its own online direct-to-consumer ordering system four days earlier, which is averaging about 100 orders per delivery day.

“The first week was kind of shocking to wrap our heads around — we didn’t know how much demand we’d have right away,” says head grower Todd Nichols.

Nichols Farm greenhouse
Photo: Courtesy of Nichols Farm & Orchard

For years, Nichols has wanted to build out on-demand deliveries, especially when he noticed big-box stores getting into the space, but he never had the time. Nichols already does a small percentage of home delivery through consumer-supported agriculture shares. Until last month, most of its remaining business came from selling to restaurants and at 15 weekly farmers’ markets.

“Home delivery seems like such an obvious model — people want the convenience,” he says. “This just forced me right away into it.”

The farm outsources deliveries to Chicago Messenger, so it was pretty easy to reroute the two drivers from their typical restaurant deliveries to doing home drop-offs anywhere in the city. They charge a flat $12 delivery fee, with no minimum orders; most people average $40 to $50.

“If I could do free delivery, I would,” he says. “A lot of people don’t understand how much it really costs to have deliveries without the mega-infrastructure of Amazon.”

It’s enough right now to keep all 18 Nichols employees on, for the time being. “That’s a lot of cash flow you have to have going right back out just paying everybody,” Nichols says.

The more elusive challenge of pivoting to home delivery is enforcing social distancing when so many of these farms’ longtime customers are now friends. Tracey Vowell, who owns Three Sisters Garden, a specialty vegetable and grains farm, is taking email orders in addition to GCM’s virtual market to shore up the revenue she lost when her 35 restaurant customers were whittled down to two. She and another employee divide up weekly deliveries between drop-off points in the city and northern suburbs.

Because two members of her three-person team are immunocompromised, she set very strict social distancing guidelines for delivery. They encourage prepayment through Venmo and change gloves and sanitize between delivery stops. They alert customers to their arrival with a call or text, asking them to stay inside with the door closed while they drop off the box on the porch or in the apartment building vestibule. That means nothing is coming back in their direction — theoretically, anyway.

“The first week didn’t go so well. We ended up yelling at a few people to get back in their houses,” Vowell says. “People are extremely grateful, and [they’re] without the human stimulus they normally have on a given day. I acknowledge it, but I still need them to rage against it. As far as we know, we are not sick, and it’s a big loss if one of us goes down.”

When Vowell and her team aren’t running deliveries, powwowing 10 feet apart in the greenhouse, transplanting cabbages and tomatoes where 90 flats of restaurant-ready microgreens used to grow, or tackling long-standing projects like finishing the hoop houses, Vowell doesn’t mind the additional time in isolation. The former longtime managing chef of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill is finally cooking through odd cuts she’s amassed in her freezer and walking her vast property with her dogs.

“On some level, this is how I thought it was going to be when I bought a chunk of land in the country — that’d I’d have time to be outside and notice that my pussy willows are popping,” she says. “There’s no question about this being a disaster, but this is a unique disaster.”

Sparrow’s sardonic humor similarly permeates our conversation, even as he describes offloading their meats at a loss and watching their savings dwindle. Uncertainty is, after all, the life of a farmer.

“We’ve been wiped out twice,” Sparrow says. “We had a barn burn down 12 years ago that eliminated three-quarters of everything we had. Then three years after that, I was still working off the farm and was laid off for 15 months, which ate up anything we had saved. This could do it to me again.

“So yeah, I guess you could say I’m pretty resilient. That or I’m too stubborn and dumb to know better.”

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