Illinois farms find new channels to distribute produce to consumers during COVID-19 pandemic

CHICAGO (WLS) -- You may have heard stories of farmers having to dump milk in Wisconsin or plow under potatoes in Idaho. Since there are no farmer's markets in operation, and most restaurants have severely cut back on their regular orders, a lot of farmers in the area have been pivoting, working with companies that have existing distribution channels.

ABC7's Hungry Hound talked to a couple of them this week, to see how they're helping downstate farms stay in business.

Marty Travis is trying to stay optimistic.

"We're seeing light at the end of the tunnel," Travis said.

He works with a co-op of 60 farms in central Illinois. But with restaurant orders down, and demand by individual households steady, he's at a crossroads.

"We can grow it. We can bring it to you, but for each of our 60 farms to become packaging lines is really, really hard," he said.

That's why he's turning to people like Jon Schiff, the CEO of Real Good Stuff Company, which focused on cold-pressed juices and grain bowls before the pandemic, using a lot of the same organic produce.

"We're getting the same products that you're getting to all these amazing chefs in the city," he said to Travis.

Schiff's West Loop warehouse allows farmers like Travis to drop their 30-pound bags of Yukon Gold potatoes, beets and boxes of eggs to be unloaded, sorted and distributed as "Farmer's Grocery Boxes."

"We can't keep doing two pounds of this for 150, 200 people. We need to be able to move 200 pounds in one piece because it's killing all of us farmers to package in small amounts," said Travis.

"So we're just finding a different avenue to tell the same story of local produce is really great," said Schiff.

For farms like Mick Klug, in St. Joseph, Michigan, they'd normally deliver to restaurants five times a week while selling at two or three farmer's markets. Business is down about 70%, so they're partnering with Schiff and several others to help sell their crops.

"We're good at growing the food and getting it to that central location. I don't think a lot of farmers, including us, are equipped with trucks, with drivers, with packaging materials to get that all distributed," said Abby Schilling, owner of Mick Klug Farm.

One of Schilling's other distributors is the Green City Market.

Earlier this week, staff spent the better part of the day receiving produce, then packing it for deliveries all over the city.

"So we had about 150 deliveries that we aggregate, pack and get out the door," said Melissa Flynn, executive director of the Green City Market.

Not an easy task for a farmer's market that normally runs three days a week.

"It was a quick pivot in about 10 days. We went from being a concrete market where we had a brick and mortar, to being completely online and delivery-based," she said. "We're in a shoulder season right now so we have a lot of storage crops remaining and we're just now seeing the fun spring stuff come in like ramps, and we should see asparagus in another week possibly in as soon as a couple of days."

A note about last Saturday's report on cooking with ramps.

At the beginning of the piece, I may have given the impression it was OK to take them from public property, since I was holding a pair of freshly dug ramps while on a Cook County forest preserve. My action was a violation of forest preserve rules. It is illegal to forage wild, native plants from forest preserves, and you will get a citation - as I did. The best way to find them is to buy from one of the co-ops or farmers we featured in this report. I regret any misunderstanding. Stay safe everyone.

If you're interested in buying directly from the farmers or signing up for a weekly delivery:

Real Good Stuff Co.
Pickup from 1321 W. Lake St.
Will deliver anywhere in region ($45 min. order, $10 delivery fee)

Green City Market
Delivery area: South to 16th St.; North and west to city limits;
Working on setting up centralized pick-up spots

Chicago MKT
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