Evanston resident and filmmaker Matt Wechsler, long passionate about sustainable agriculture and the implications of industrial agriculture at-large, quickly recognized the implications of an accelerating set of problems.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic created a free-fall for the business practices of many small farmers, and Mr. Wechsler was alarmed.
“The way the industrial agriculture community responded to COVID-19 was rather shocking,” Mr. Wechsler said. “The milk industry was dumping the milk. The pork industry was euthanizing pigs. There were bottlenecks for beef. Beef prices were skyrocketing. COVID-19 rates were extremely high in beef processing facilities. It was just a giant mess.”
The response to that alarm yielded what Mr. Wechsler and others hope to be a beacon of light in local food sustainability in Evanston, with the creation of the Village Farmstand at 810 Dempster St.
Village Farmstand offers a location for dozens of Illinois farmers to sell their products directly to those who order specific quantities of produce, meat products, dairy and more.
According to the Village Farmstand’s website, “We only source from farms that use organic and regenerative practices. Regenerative agriculture focuses on increasing biodiversity, soil health, climate resilience, carbon sequestration and nutrient density.”
Sustainability, often a buzzword in food service and academia, is taken extra seriously by Mr. Wechsler.
“We don’t want to be contributors to that 40% food waste that most grocery stores are [part of] … “We’re happy to donate some food, but we do want to make sure the food that these farmers are taking incredible amounts of pride raising does get eaten, does go to people whether it goes to the store or to some of the farmer’s other customers.”
Mr. Wechsler had already broached the topic of what farmers need in response to the pandemic with Marty Travis of Spence Farm in Fairbury. Fairbury is about 100 miles southwest of Evanston and about 37 miles northwest of Bloomington/Normal.
Mr. Wechsler asked Mr. Travis what he needed, and Mr. Travis answered emphatically.
“He realized very quickly just what a struggle we were having so we started a conversation and he said, ‘What do you really need?’ And I said, ‘We needed somebody to take over receiving the bulk product, pack it into and handle the individual orders,’” Mr. Travis said. “We have the product, it’s just, this is a part of our design, which is fine, We’ve changed. But that would help us a lot. Basically we began that track, and Village Farmstead was created as an online ordering system for hundreds of our retail customers.”
Mr. Travis’s family operation, Spence Farms, has helped shoulder some responsibilities for dozens of farms primarily in Central Illinois for years, with Mr. Travis estimating nearly 60 farms receive assistance; and other restaurants and chefs benefit from Spence Farms’ handling responsibilities like aggregation, marketing, delivery, invoicing so “chefs don’t get 50 different invoices.”
“This past March when the pandemic hit, one of my first calls was to Marty to ask how he was doing because all the restaurants were shutting down,” Mr. Wechsler said. “He and his group of farmers were sourcing restaurants primarily and I called because I [wanted] to figure out what they were going to do.”
Many of these small farms lost out on a vital source of income when Chicago restaurants stopped purchasing produce in bulk at the beginning of the pandemic. Mr. Travis started collecting orders quickly for hundreds of individuals, but he, like other farmers in a similar position, found the workload daunting.
“We very quickly realized how incredibly difficult this was going to be long-term, because all of us as farmers were used to packing crate size,” Mr. Travis said. “Fifty pounds, 30 pounds and not doing 180 1-pound bags. It took a ton more time to harvest, clean, wash, pack, label, the expense was more. It was taking up a lot more space in our coolers … It took us hours and hours to load the truck, check each order and all of those things.”
Mr. Travis, like many of the small farm operators in Illinois needed an alternate model to make the logistics of such an operation more efficient and less backbreaking.
“For someone like myself who had put all this work into all these films, I felt this was a time to transform our food system and how can I be a part of it?” Mr. Wechsler said. “That’s really what started the whole store idea.”
Mr. Travis’s relationship with Mr. Wechsler dates back to 2013 when the latter was working on a documentary film called “Sustainable” which heavily featured Mr. Travis’ farm. The relationship the two had, and the assistance of others quickly helped lead to a plan of action.
“We knew eventually that our main plan would be to build the store and be more of a store that serves the community where people can pick up and really understand where the food comes from,” Mr. Wechsler said. “As personal grocers for them, we almost act as a bartender telling them what we’re pouring from our taps that day.”
The market occupies the storefront recently vacated by Hewn Bakery, and the disappointment of losing a staple of local food was met by Mr. Mr. Wechsler, Travis and others as a chance to address the loss.
“For those who live in the Main-Dempster Mile area, south Evanston and the Fourth Ward, this was a staple place for all of us to go,” Mr. Wechsler said of Hewn.
Those involved with Village Farmstand have expressed hope that the Evanston operation will serve as a model for future trends in agriculture and will assist in getting food to underserved communities.
Mr. Travis and Mr. Wechsler are both hopeful the Farmstand accomplishes its goal of providing farmers 60 cents on the dollar for their products. Mr. Wechsler cited a figure that in industrial agriculture, somewhere around 23% of the money from a purchase gets back to the farmer. By reducing the number of steps to get products on a store shelf, the hope is to put that money in farmers’ pockets.
With the entire operation still in its infancy, Mr. Wechsler and Mr. Travis said they have to be prepared for adapting to the needs of Evanston residents. One of the first problems Mr. Wechsler had to address was figuring out the increments of produce needed from farmers, and how much people would be willing to purchase and at what cost.
“If you wanted to purchase beets, you’d purchase them in 3-5 pound increments,” Mr. Wechsler said. “If you wanted to purchase greens, you’d purchase kale in two-pound increments. Two pounds of kale is an incredible amount of kale. The first issue we really had was understanding we’re trying to create a grocery store and people are going to be surprised by the retail price of two pounds of kale, even though it’s a very competitive price, but let’s put it more in the increment they’re used to purchasing it.”
With a easily accessible website that Mr. Wechsler credited Joe Buhnerkempe with assistance in maintaining, the Farmstand, which opened to the public on Aug. 28, is taking orders online on its website, and offers frequent updates about shipments on its Facebook page.
“It brings convenience, it brings that sense of community in tighter,” Mr. Travis said, “the sense of opportunity for families to shop there, to see year-round farm product available. … Evanston has this really great history of supporting the farmers market and those farmers there and the restaurants and all of that. This, I think, ties into all of that, without competing against any of it but adding another layer of cooperation in this whole food system.”
The Village Farmstand is open to the public Thursday through Sunday, with full hours listed on the website https://villagefarmstand.com/.