An Angus “hams” it up for the camera as a father and son team of Steve (left) and Randy Arends talk about their farming operation. Steve raises 120 head of cattle on the same farm his ancestors first settled in 1882. Beef from the farm is sold at the family’s Gibson City Meats and Deli business.
An Angus “hams” it up for the camera as a father and son team of Steve (left) and Randy Arends talk about their farming operation. Steve raises 120 head of cattle on the same farm his ancestors first settled in 1882. Beef from the farm is sold at the family’s Gibson City Meats and Deli business.
GIBSON CITY, Ill. — A father-son team of grain and livestock producers who saw a market potential for meats and dairy products without “all the stuff” are observing the first anniversary of their venture next month.

Randy Arends and his son, Steve, fourth- and fifth-generation farmers whose home-base remains on the farmstead settled by their ancestors in 1882, opened Gibson City Meats and Deli in 2013 as a means to sell local, naturally produced food that is raised without hormones, antibiotics or other related products.

The business offers locally produced beef, pork, cheese, milk products and produce for counter sale along with custom butcher services and a cafe open for breakfast and lunch.

A chalkboard near the counter encourages customers to “Buy local, buy fresh” and lists “our local farmers,” Arends Farms Beef, Melvin; Ropp Jersey Cheese, Normal; Kilgus Farmstead Dairy, Fairbury; Ludwig Farmstead Creamery, Fithian; Little Farm on the Prairie, Saunemin; Sasse’s Apiary, Chestnut; Trudy’s, DeKalb; Croix Valley, River Falls; Roth Turkey Farm, Strawn; and Premium Pork, Cabery, all of which have their products available at the business.

The Arendses are no strangers to the challenges of livestock production as they saw the transition over the years from small- and medium- to large-scale operations and the parallel shift in demand, costs and marketing. Yet they also saw a niche hole in the area that could be plugged.

Randy joined in his father’s cattle operation in 1982, and after a few years, the family transitioned to a farrow-to-finish hog facility.

“We did that for about 25 years and then transitioned out of that with the bigger hog operations (competing). We had about 120 sows, and that really was not big enough. You either had to get bigger or get out,” he said.

Overcame Tragedy

Tragedy then struck the Arends family and led them toward today’s path.

Steve and his twin brother, Greg, were on their way to their co-op jobs before school on Jan. 17, 2003, when Greg lost control of their car. Greg died instantly, and Steve was severely injured.

Steve was in a coma for nearly six months and was never expected to be out of a wheelchair due to his injuries, but in the months and years that followed, he has experienced a miraculous recovery that exceeded any of his doctor’s expectations.

“Steve was always interested in farming, so it was kind of will or won’t he be able to farm at all,” Randy said.

“Then about two years after the accident, he wanted to start farming. He rented some ground from a neighbor and was real interested in getting back into the cattle business. He didn’t want anything to do with hogs.”

“I could not stand the smell and just didn’t like it,” Steve said, chuckling.

The Arendses already had the livestock facilities in place and were able to convert back to cattle.

“We started off small. We sold some freezer beef, and then we figured if we’re going to get into it, we’re not going to be big and really most of the packers want to get semi loads of cattle and we weren’t ready to jump in that big, so we thought we’d start working with local markets,” Randy said.

The Arendses were having their meat processed at another location about 35 miles away.

A former lumber company in downtown Gibson City closed about three years ago, and the Arendses saw an opportunity to bring their idea of offering locally produced food to fruition.

“We thought the building was laid out pretty good. We thought this would be a good opportunity to provide services of custom processing and also retail,” Randy said.

“With the beef prices getting to where they are, people were backing away from doing quarters and halves sides of meat because they were so expensive.”

“I said, ‘Why not give them good meat?’ We can offer cheap prices by the fact that we don’t have to ship the beef or market the beef,” Steve said.

“There was a hole in the area that needed to be filled, and we filled it. We can provide the community with quality products at much lower prices. I saw restaurants with outrageous meat price and said, ‘We can’t do that, not in the Gibson City area.’

“We need affordable prices with no drugs, no hormones and all natural. I just felt compelled to fill that need.”

Joined Stewardship

The Arendses joined the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a group that promotes environmentally sustainable, economically viable, socially just, local food systems through policy development, advocacy and education.

“There is a lot of interest in local foods, especially in the Champaign area, so we’re working with about a half-dozen restaurants and providing them with beef and pork,” Randy said.

Steve operates a 120-head cattle operation that provides meat for the family business and is expanding with a new hoop building and said he made the investment in livestock production because he saw its market potential.

The pork for the business is purchased from area farmers who also raise their livestock naturally.

“We have one that strictly raises Berkshire. There is a pretty good interest in that in restaurants. We have another local farmer that has less than 100 sows and raises all natural. We buy all local,” Randy said.

Hope to Expand

The Arendses continue to look for more products to add to their list of store items.

“We’re trying to provide a good outlet to allow local farmers trying to get into a Walmart or a County Market and don’t have the volume or the packaging or whatever to do that. We’re small enough that we’re able to incorporate locally produced products and provide an outlet for the smaller farms,” Randy said.

The cafe menu consists of breakfast items along with lunch staples such as locally produced hamburgers, brats, deli sandwiches, soups and salad.

“That’s kind of the idea of doing the cafe here, too. We’re able to do a farm-to-table,” Randy said.

The butcher shop is in the back of the building where a full-time meat-cutter can prepare whatever style cuts the customer requests.

The demand for locally produced foods has expanded significantly over the last few years.

“People absolutely want and need to know where their beef is coming from. People want less chemicals in their food overall. They just want a good-tasting cheeseburger,” Steve said of the demand growth.

“There is some truth to the saying ‘build it and they will come.’”