FAIRBURY, Ill. — The Taste of Chicago each July is touted as the world largest food festival, but visitors to the Windy City’s finest restaurants can enjoy a taste of Livingston County year-round thanks to a group of local farmers.

The idea of providing a variety of locally produced fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products not only to area grocery stores but also to high-end restaurants run by renowned chefs began nearly 10 years ago.

Formation of the Stewards of the Land, a group whose name can be seen on menus in Chicago and other metropolitan areas in Illinois, began when a handful of Fairbury-area producers seized the moment.

Marty and Kris Travis and their son, Will, operators of Spence Farm, the oldest family farm in the county, began providing products from their farm to Chicago chefs, and the demand quickly grew.

The Travises produce diversified products on 60 acres of their 160-acre farmstead, including heirloom eggs, Iroquois white corn and forest-harvested onions, blossoms, morels, cattails and paw paws.

“It didn’t take more than one or two deliveries to realize that we couldn’t produce everything that they wanted,” Marty Travis said.

They also saw a trend in all farm communities that young people were going to college and not returning to work on the family farm.

“Kris was especially interested in finding ways that we could create opportunities to help keep some of these young people in the community and ways that we could create opportunities on the farm,” Travis said.

Started Small

In 2005, families from three farms expressed interest in growing produce to be sold at Dave’s Supermarket in Fairbury.

Through the arrangement coordinated by the Travises, the local grocery provided the space and the farmers received 80 percent of the sale price. There was about $1,500 in sales that first year.

“Very shortly, we were inundated with more and more farms who wished to join the group and be a part of it,” Travis said.

With growing interest, the Stewards of the Land was formed as a limited liability company with bylaws, the establishment of core values and a business plan.

The group’s values include creating healthy, clean food without using synthetic chemicals. Each of the farms could be certified organic because of its practices, but certification is not required.

Membership was capped at 25 farms within a geographic area, and items range from turkeys, pork, dairy, beef and goat products to wild leeks, berries, apples, cucumbers, field peas and sweet corn.

“By 2010 the members of that group and the farms that had gotten large enough to be on their own had sales of $1.2 million in just five years,” Travis said.

The idea continues to rapidly grow as more families and young people want to join the group, and the group continues to focus on creating new opportunities.

“We also were trying to find as many avenues for them as they wanted. The Dave’s Supermarket thing was one,” Travis said. “We began marketing to chefs throughout the city and then connecting individual producers like Living Waters Farms (in Strawn) or Kilgus Dairy (in Fairbury) with other buyers and trying to open that whole arena up.

“It worked really well, but as we continue to grow and those individual farms got large enough, we decided we had so many more people who wanted to join we figured out the group could become an incubator. As farms got large enough to do their own marketing, they didn’t need the insurance, they didn’t need the support, we moved them on to an advisory group and then we could bring more people in.”

2nd Cooperative Born

About three years ago, there still were 10 to 15 more farms beyond the 25 limit of the Stewards, so a second community cooperative marketing model, Legacy of the Land, was formed.

Since the cooperative was formed, the Travises’ role includes marketing to Chicago and downstate restaurants to create more opportunities.

“Others in the group are doing (Community Supported Agriculture), some farmers markets, some grocery stores and some of their own marketing to now to individuals and restaurants. We have one family that’s marketing quite a bit of stuff down in St. Louis,” Travis said.

The process of providing fresh food to the city begins at noon each Friday when the members email Travis with a list of what they will have available the next week. That information is forwarded to nearly 200 chefs by Friday night.

The chefs email their orders by noon Monday, and products are available on a first-come basis. The Travises send orders on Monday afternoon to the group’s members.

The goods ordered are delivered to Spence Farm by Tuesday evening and invoices sent to the restaurants.

“We’re up early Wednesday, load the van and deliver to the restaurants. During the middle of the season, it’s usually a 16- to18-hour day in Chicago. We also deliver to Peoria, Bloomington and Champaign,” Travis said.

The process starts over with the Legacy group the second half of the week, and deliveries are made on Friday to Champaign.

Last year, they made deliveries 48 out of 52 weeks.

“From Spence Farm last year, we did 227 different varieties. The Stewards weren’t quite that much, but there’s everything from turkeys to beef, eggs, rabbits, potatoes, wheat, rye, tomatoes, melons, radishes — probably over 100 different items,” Travis said.

“It’s a very extensive list, and it makes it such that each of the individual farms can’t afford the drive up there.

“We’ve developed this for long enough that we have a route set up, we have word of mouth and the chefs don’t necessarily want 25 or 30 different people coming in and out. The chefs can basically write one check to the Stewards and then it gets divvied up to those 20-some farms.

“The opportunities keep expanding, and it’s still just a drop in the bucket.”

The group picked up 12 additional restaurants since January.

These partnerships the restaurants have with Livingston County farms are beneficial for both entities.

“The restaurants promote the fact that they’re involved in this program,” Travis said. “To be able to have that kind of recognition for small family farms here in this community, not just from the chefs, but their guests see those names and begin to recognize those names.

“We’re accomplishing what we set out to do early on, and that’s creating opportunity for the people and young people to stay on the farm and have a way to do that.

“I see it as a great opportunity. We need thousands more small farmers who are willing to work and are committed to the community and food production. It’s one of the fastest growing sectors.

“I think we’ve been able to impact a lot of families.”