Raising Vegetables, Chicken for Chicago Markets Lifts Small Co-op
|John and Ida Thurman, who raise vegetables, chickens and hogs in central Illinois, cooperate with 20 other families to jointly process and sell their products in Chicago. |
Photo courtesy of John Thurman
On Main Street, the ethnic produce purple-hulled peas, speckled lima beans, okra, watermelons and collard greens piles up in colorful displays for residents of rural Pembroke Township, Ill., who select their favorites on weekdays during the growing season. The buyers directly support their farming neighbors, who have been growing vegetables for generations but only recently began co-selling them at markets.
Once a week, the members of the Pembroke Farmers Cooperative take their show on the road. They pack up their refrigerated truck and bring their bounty to the Austin farmers market in Chicago, 70 miles away.
The young cooperative, started in 1999, has grown from a few members to more than 20, all eager to maximize the market potential for their chemical-free vegetables. Many of them also raise chickens using range methods that justify their natural labeling claims. Range chicken production, in fact, has increased partly thanks to two SARE farmer grants, which helped Pembroke producers perfect free-range and pen methods for raising poultry.
The co-op also has benefited from a USDA rural development grant, which helped set up the co-op with staff and a computer. The group leveraged a state grant to purchase a refrigerated truck, which hauls chickens to the processor and returns with fresh meat to sell to about six restaurants and a few health food stores in Chicago.
With help from the Kankakee County USDA-Farm Service Agency director, they located a small-scale processor to slaughter and package their birds, and created a simple co-op label. With processing secured, the families are able to sell their product within the county or, for an even better premium, in Chicago.
Its a system that really fits their lifestyles and the community, said Merrill Marxman, the FSA director who helped establish the co-op. They have small acreages and limited financial resources. We started it as an outreach effort to what we saw as an impoverished community, and now the co-op has a headquarters.
The Pembroke farmers grew up raising garden vegetables, most with a few animals on the side. In the mid-1990s, more and more of them were taking advantage of the sales opportunities in Chicago, staffing booths at farmers markets and gaining store and restaurant customers with promises of locally raised, chemical-free produce. When they started to notice their neighbors driving the same direction each weekend, a few began to piggyback sales on one anothers transactions.
On weekends, you would see 10 or 12 pickup trucks leaving the community, said Basu, the president of the Pembroke Growers Cooperative who uses only one name. Many of them had old, raggedy trucks that were always breaking down. We starting helping one another and buying things together.
With little money even buying seeds at the beginning of the season was challenging farmers in Pembroke saw the advantage of pooling their limited resources. When two of them received SARE grants to study raising chickens outdoors, they shared their new practical experiences with others in the community.
Weve been raising chickens as a family for 40 years, said John Thurman, a Pembroke farmer who received a SARE grant to evaluate methods to raise chickens. Not only was our project a success, but we have been able to continue poultry production and teach community members about raising pastured poultry, he said.
The interest from potential customers in buying pasture-raised chicken encouraged the group to jointly purchase the truck, enabling them to produce in bulk. Co-op members hope to build a local processing plant to save the 150-mile round trip to the processor.
The meat sells for $2.40 a pound, and the groups customers seem happy with the co-ops product. If they have any complaint, its that they do not have enough for them to feature every week.
Our volume goes in spurts, explained Basu. On a given month, the co-op may slaughter 1,000 birds, then process another thousand in just two weeks. Basu, however, is sure the group could sell 10,000 birds a week.
We have a good product and an arrangement with our customers, Basu said. When we do have chicken, the chefs highlight fresh, free-range poultry on their menus.
The glue that keeps the group together, and what seems to be a key to their success, is the lack of agri-chemicals in their production. Most of us have been organic farmers for years before the word became popular, said Basu. Were a limited resource community, and we didnt have the money to pay for chemicals.
Instead, the farmers employ hot pepper sprays and garlic mixes to deter pests.
The co-op is trying to expand both production and its customer base. By getting together, we can meet more [production] numbers, Thurman said. Its working out pretty well.
Basu remains confident that the small group will survive, especially because they surmounted one of the biggest obstacles: encouraging independent farmers to work together.
The hardest thing you can do is organize farmers because theyre very independent, especially family farmers, Basu said. Were still young and developing our marketing and our product a Pembroke bird. We want to get that message out there that we have a good clean bird, produced off the land.
Small-scale farmers in central Illinois
|Educating Team |
USDA and state agencies
|Challenges Addressed |
Little access to capital or equipment
Small land holdings
|Connection Strategies |
Federal grant funding
Locating resources (i.e. refrigerated truck)
|Teaching Methods |