Farm-to-table is becoming mainstream – even out in the ‘burbs

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Years ago, this part of the summer often would find Angela Collins working the garden patch, toiling at the elbow of one or another grandparent. All four of her mother and father’s Italian-born parents were avid gardeners, and Collins naturally followed their lead. The 15-year Naperville resident still tends a small patch of vegetables in her backyard.

Supplementing the just-picked yield are farm stand goods she picks up for herself, her husband and son at Mayneland Farm, at Mill Street and Bauer Road. The family’s protein comes from a share they hold in Walnut Acres Family Farm, a small ranching operation that sits an hour and a half west of the city, midway between Princeton and Rock Falls.

Collins is part of a growing population that harbors an appetite for foodstuffs grown or raised close to home. The locally sourced trend is steadily gaining strength, sprouting a variety of ways to secure regional nourishment well beyond the warm season’s myriad farmers markets.

“I think that people are looking at how to feel better without drugs, without the antibiotics and hormones that go into their meat,” Collins said. “They want to be healthy, and they want to know how to do it.”

If the growth of farm shares is any indication, the movement has indeed made strides with each harvest. According to the online database, farms that run community supported agriculture programs — an approach through which shareholding members help fund the costs of planting, cultivating and bringing in the yield in return for a portion of the harvest — have increased more than tenfold in the past decade, now numbering more than 4,400 nationwide.

Food with a face

The movement is casually aligned, operating under mantras such as “know your farmer, know your food,” and has allowed a new lexicon to take root. Some adherents strive to contain their foodshed, the geographic region from which their households derive their diets. Others identify themselves as locavores, a reference to the yearning for edibles produced nearby, aware that the habit helps support economies close to home. Some are interested in backing efforts to preserve biodiversity, eschewing supermarket produce selections often informed by varieties that best stand up to shipping over long distances. Still others swear by niche products, such as raw milk, which has been rendered more accessible by the demand for it.

Raised by a father who grew up on a farm, Ann LeClercq was drawn to the region’s food producers during childhood. The Oswego resident, whose husband Brian is the village president, procures her family’s meat and eggs from the Walnut Acres meat CSA, in part because she thinks meat raised humanely just tastes better. She has no specific objection to the beef and pork displayed in grocers’ meat departments, but she knows large-scale meat operations generally can’t give their animals the same room to graze offered by farms that tend much smaller herds.

“I know they work hard to get good quality food on their shelves, but when they’re crowded in a barn, these animals can’t do what God intended them to do,” LeClercq said.

Walnut Farms’ operators, Dave and Robin Jameson, appreciate having members who value what they do. For several years they had sold their pork and beef by the entire animal to families who commonly would divide the packaged roasts, chops, steaks, bacon and ground meats. About two years ago, the couple realized there was an eager market among those who lack the space to keep half of a pig or one-quarter of a steer frozen solid. Now their product line includes packaged beef, pork, chicken — packaged in individual family-sized cuts and frozen — and fresh eggs, all of which they deliver to members in a one-month supply.

“We needed to find a way to open this up to other people, so that more families could get good, healthy, well-raised meat,” Robin Jameson said.

The program now counts 180 families in its membership, each month delivering to seven drop-off sites that include locations in Elgin, Yorkville, Batavia and Lisle.

Beyond farmers markets

The meat-share option is one way local food producers have made their goods more accessible. Tapping an Internet that wasn’t available to the generation that preceded them on the farm, growers and ranchers are also relying on word of mouth as a marketing tool.

Promoted quietly from one fan to the next, raw milk is one of the items unique to small producers. The unpasteurized dairy fluid contains elevated levels of Beta Casein A2, which research suggests is effective in prevention and treatment of such conditions as heart disease, autism and childhood diabetes. Because it must be handled very carefully to minimize the risk of food-borne illness, however, raw milk can’t be purchased from stores. Cooperative distribution networks such as the 16-head Golden Guernsey Dairy in Carol Stream, the last fresh dairy farming operation in DuPage County, allow consumers to buy the beverage directly from the farm.

Dairy owners Rick and Kelly Boge relate on their website their disenchantment with the way the industry had changed by 2006, when they were working with a herd of 150 cows in Wisconsin, and realized the manufacturers of agricultural chemicals were pressuring producers to treat their animals with hormones and other preemptive additives they consider unnecessary and possibly harmful.

“This was against everything we, as a family, believed in, so we gave up our herd and moved back to the Chicagoland area,” the site reads.

Large industry is pushing back still, prompting proponents of raw milk to document the issue in “Farmageddon,” a recently released film that advocates for small farmers and outlines the case for food choices. The documentary furnishes accounts of government raids that have involved farmers being led away in handcuffs and notes that 88 percent of U.S. dairy farms have disappeared in the past four decades.

Local-foods activist Bronwyn Weaver, who owns Heritage Prairie Farm just west of Geneva with her husband Bob Archibald, sees a growing indignation over the issue and ongoing efforts to regulate the business.

“People are up in arms, both from the community standpoint and the farm standpoint,” Weaver said. “It’s just a great effort to squelch the local food movement.”

She asserts that government shouldn’t be overly involved in decisions about what goes on the dinner table.

“The local food movement is now getting educated enough so that the people who take the risk are willing to do so based on an understanding,” Weaver said.

In recent decades, she noted, people have grown increasingly distant from the source of what they put into their bodies.

“There’s been this great disconnection that’s happened,” she said. “All of the background information, all of the stories about food — who raised it, who grew it — they don’t have that knowledge anymore.

“People are starting to see that if you can’t go right to the source, you better go through a trusted intermediary.”

What’s old is new

For Collins, that’s an encouraging development. A registered nurse and office manager at the Naperville Acupuncture Center, she said the practice has hosted “meet the meat” events where the Jamesons share some of their substantial knowledge of nutrition, sustainable protein production and related topics.

It’s a modern twist on the old idea that you are what you eat.

“I think people my age were raised that way, and they want to get back to that,” Collins said. “People are getting more aware of it. They need to know it’s out there.”

Weaver is hopeful.

“It’s a fascinating time to be involved in the discussion,” she said. “It’s scary what’s at stake.”

As the momentum builds among those looking for ways to grow closer to their families and their communities, and as more of the population turns its attention to prevention of disease and other chronic health woes, Weaver believes eating locally will grow ever more mainstream.

“We don’t want to have to search out that food in extraordinary ways. We just want it to be available,” she said. “We just want to be normal.”


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