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For Central Illinois Small Farmers, New Cooperative Could Provide Mutual Benefits

Cornfield
Keith Srakocic/AP
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AP
Ears of corn are still on some of the stalks in a corn field on a farm in Evans City, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

A coalition of central Illinois farmers is starting a new processing cooperative in hopes of reaping the rewards by expanding its customer base and selling season.

Tom Martin is no stranger to the local food economy. He's one of the founders of the Market on the Hill cooperative grocery store in Mount Pulaski, about an hour southeast of Peoria.

The two Illinois cities are dissimilar, but share one commonality: both were participants in the Local Foods, Local Places program.

Now, Martin is at the helm of the board of the new FarmFED Cooperative.

"Well, what you want to start to do is try and, one, service our hospitals or schools or nursing homes, larger business? Well, you want to start to do is try and one service our hospitals or schools or nursing homes, larger businesses. Try and put a program in place where we could service more industrial type entities, not just selling to the local markets to individuals," Martin said.

Jeff Hake and his wife farm near McLean. They're also the managers of the FarmFED co-op. Hake said the idea has circulated among central Illinois small-scale farmers for years.

"Anyone who's involved in food systems stuff, who's involved in small farms, knows that this kind of thing is needed," he said. "And it's just never, it's so rarely the right opportunity. And I think the opportunity has finally come up."

One of the biggest obstacles small producers face is cold storage and freezer space.

Kaitie Adams is a farmer in Monticello. She says it's difficult for small farms to build out that infrastructure to expand their customer base.

"Having this shared infrastructure that allows for all of us to share in the cost, as well as sharing the space pretty much ensures that we're able to grow more products," she said.

Martin said because Illinois crops are seasonal, it isn't possible to sell fresh foods from roughly December through March without the benefit of expensive technology.

"We're going to have to process that somehow. And flash freezing, it seems to be the way for us to go. So our whole goal is to do it year round. So we're we have a viable entity that serving our customers on a year-round basis," Martin said.

Adams said pooling resources and the risk benefits not only the farmers, but also the consumers.

"That allows folks in central Illinois to be able to eat food that's grown here in central Illinois, instead of being shipped from California or from all over the world," Adams said. "So, like New Zealand, we get a lot of apples from New Zealand. Why don't we eat some apples grown in here in central Illinois?"

Martin sees the co-op serving a wide swath of the region, stretching roughly from Peoria in the north, to Bloomington and Decatur in the east, and down south to Springfield.

"We have to get into the larger institutions to be able to do this and to be successful. And so it's a very easy concept to be able to reach out and say this is going to be a regionalized effort, not just about Mount Pulaski," he said.

Martin said FarmFED co-ops backers need to raise about $100,000 to get it off the ground. They've come up with about a quarter of that so far.

Hake said most of that comes through getting more people to buy an ownership stake.

"It's really essential to the whole cooperative, the whole project, that we get people not just interested, but directly invested, in the project. And if we can't do that, then we can't proceed on, you know, purchasing a building or, you know, getting the other kind of investment that we need," he said.

Kaitie Adams is one of those farmers putting money into the venture.

"It's one of those key pieces within our food infrastructure that actually allows for more farmers, including young and first generation farmers like myself, to actually see themselves growing and being able to sell perennial crops," said Adams, adding the co-op providing storage and processing would allow small farmers in central Illinois to expand into crops like apples and pears.

For McLean farmer Jeff Hake, the co-op is a way for small farmers to better capitalize on some of the area's inherent agricultural advantages: great soil and climate.

"We can use food and agriculture to be an economic driver rather than just being something on the side. It doesn't just have to be corn and soybeans. It can be, you know, a whole diversified range of production," Hake said.

Martin and Hake hope to begin operations in earnest by next spring.

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