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Illinois’s Small Farmers Turn to Tech During Pandemic Restaurant Closures

Farms, markets, wholesale distributors, and purveyors are take local food online

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A man and woman stand in a field with a bunch of goats
Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery owners Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell
Praire Fruits Farm & Creamery [Official Photo]

It’s kidding season at Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery in downstate Champaign. Co-owners Leslie Cooperband and husband Wes Jarrell are, as Cooperband describes it, in the midst of “full-on baby goat madness right now.” Her team usually spends the early months of spring bottle-feeding babies, milking does, and making chevre, which she typically sells to Chicago restaurants.

This year, just as the annual ritual began, Cooperband sent her legions of farm volunteers home, away from the farm, to keep COVID-19 from spreading. The move left behind a small group to manage the incredibly busy time. The next domino fell when dine-in restaurant closures hit, and their large goat cheese orders were slashed or canceled altogether. “Meanwhile, these girls are popping out babies left and right.” Cooperband says, referring to the goats. “They’re not paying attention to a pandemic.”

Three women hold baby goats
Cooperband (right) and staff at with some of Prairie Fruits’s kids.
Prairie Fruits [Official Photo]

Grocery stores throughout the U.S. scrambled to keep up with demand for pantry goods during March’s early days of coronavirus-induced social distancing. But as weeks passed and as stores began rationing items in especially high demand, crowds have thinned, panic shopping mostly diminished, and customers became accustomed to new hours and procedures. Large retailers still have access to a robust supply chain and some, including Trader Joe’s and Amazon, are hiring staff in large numbers.

But for producers who have made a living by selling goods at farmer’s markets or wholesale to area restaurants, progression of nature’s seasons continues, adding to the challenges rippling outward from farmers like Cooperband to wholesale distribution companies, retail stores, and restaurants. And for farms, the path forward depends largely on reinforcing connections to customers through technology.

“It’s a huge time of uncertainty — there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” says Melissa Flynn, executive director of Chicago’s Green City Market, which organizes farmers markets across the city. “Any disruption to a farmer’s regular revenue stream is just as disruptive and concerning to them as it would be to any business... Having a continued connection to shoppers is essential for the survival of small local farms.”

As stay at home orders closed Chicago’s parks and threatened to suspend farmers market season, Flynn and her team leapt to help maintain that link through home deliveries and centralized pickup points for customers. They launched a smartphone app called Green City Market Delivered that allows customers to order from multiple vendors and aggregate selections into a single delivery. “It provides a platform for farmers to remain independent,” Flynn says. “You can still choose your favorite farmers, see their bios, and choose where your food is coming from.”

Prairie Fruits enjoyed a robust wholesale program to Chicago restaurants prior to the shutdown, according to Cooperbrand. After closures swept the city, she and her husband scrambled to renew relationships with local independent grocery stores, and worked to set up their own online store as quickly as possible. She’s heard about farmers having significant success with online sales, and believes vendors like her are in a unique position. “The fascinating story unfolding here is the resiliency of this inherently short supply chain that local food represents,” she says. “This is our moment — farmers like us that have built their farms on the concept of supplying the local region.”

Dave Rand, co-founder and chief operating officer of wholesale distributor Local Foods — which has a grocery store with a small counter cafe off the Elston Industrial Corridor — works with small area farms and vendors to sell to Chicago restaurants and the general public. “It’s crushing to watch friends and peers have to shut down and lay staff off — it’s one of the hardest things I’ve been though as a business leader,” he says. He is managing the same staffing problems and closure costs as other restaurants, in addition to the large credit lines Local Foods has previously extended to restaurants.

The outside of a market building
Local Foods’s retail location
Marc Much/Eater Chicago

Customers are no longer allowed inside, as Local Foods has transitioned to online purchasing platform Mercado and using curbside pickup. Though losses from the cafe’s closure hurt, Rand still sees a silver lining in his retail and wholesale operations because it allows him to support the small purveyors who are still producing goods. “It’s an outlet for farmers and ranchers for products they’re still making,” he says. “Vegetables get mature, animals keep growing — all this stuff is happening and it can’t stop, so it’s been paramount to us to maintain sales channels and sell the food our farming community is making for us.”

Jackie Gennett owns Bushel & Peck’s, a farm in Monroe, Wisconsin. She says sales platforms like the market’s app are critical. “The app allows us to bring all farmers of the market together — I believe that’s exactly what people are looking for right now.”

Despite the gravity of the financial situation for small producers and vendors, as well as the wholesalers and restaurants that work with them, multiple farmers said their spirits remain high. “I think people are very optimistic, believe it or not,” Gennett says. “There’s no other way to face agriculture but with optimism. Conditions change every day, and we have to assume it’s going to be okay at some point. What we’re trying to do is bridge that gap and not lose customers, to stay relevant — we want them to know we’re not a novelty, that farms and farm goods are a critical part of their every day.”

Green City Market

1790 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60614 (773) 880-1266 Visit Website

Local Foods

1427 West Willow Street, , IL 60642 (312) 432-6575 Visit Website