October 19, 2021

New cooperative connects farmers, consumers

MT. PULASKI, Ill. — An ambitious project underway that will help bridge the gap between local farmers and community members who want more access to food grown in central Illinois.

The Central Illinois Farm-Fresh Enterprise Development Cooperative will operate a facility that preserves the freshness and nutrition of local food through processing and freezing, allowing growers to bring bulk produce to the facility and make it available in a form suited for larger buyers like schools, hospitals and retail grocery stores.

Right now, central Illinois producers have no local opportunity to access these kinds of resources without huge on-farm investment.

“It is a daily challenge to get our crops sold and distributed in a timely fashion,” said Ted Maddox of Maddox Sweet Corn Farm in Warrensburg.

“The proposed FarmFED Co-op would help distribute our crops to outlets that we cannot get to and has plans for processing products in ways that most producers don’t have the means to do. This project will not only bring support to area farmers, but will do a service to our community by bringing our fresh produce from farm to table.”

“Processing, cold storage and marketing are three of the largest barriers preventing the scale-up of local food in central Illinois,” added Kaitie Adams of Savanna Institute and Red Crib Acres in Urbana.

“With over 90% of what we eat coming from out of state, innovative, community-based solutions are essential for Illinois farmers to grow more food for Illinois families. I am beyond thrilled with plans for the FarmFED Co-op. As a grower and small business owner, this facility would give me the confidence to scale products for larger markets and create new ones.”

The co-op, led by a board of local farmers, community members and advocates, plans to purchase the former Johnson True Value Hardware Store in Mt. Pulaski and upgrade it to accommodate a processing line, commercial kitchen and 4,000 square feet of cold storage.

Farmers will be able to sell produce to the cooperative, as well as obtain custom processing and rent cold storage. Local food entrepreneurs will be able to rent the commercial kitchen space to grow their businesses in a licensed facility.

Mt. Pulaski was one of 15 communities across the country to receive a Local Food/Local Places grant through the Environmental Protection Agency, which culminated in the opening of the Market on the Hill cooperative grocery store there in June 2020.

In March of that year, the city’s Economic Development and Planning Board hired two local farmers to explore the feasibility of a “food hub,” an entity that helps local farms gain access to new markets and resources.

“One of our goals is to develop a regionalized local food system that provides farm-fresh food to consumers in central Illinois,” said Tom Martin, co-op board president and a lifelong Mt. Pulaski resident, farmer and community organizer.

“Our community has remained vigilant in working to make this goal a reality, and we realized early in the process that if we were to succeed, we needed to take this project beyond Mt. Pulaski. Now, through collaboration with producers, consumers and community leaders from the entire region, we have developed a concept and business plan we believe has a great chance at success.”

The FarmFED Co-op’s planning has reached a critical stage and now seeks the support of its community. Its board has launched an ownership recruitment campaign to raise $100,000 from the sale of shares in the cooperative.

Shares confer the ability to vote on decisions for the cooperative, with three different share levels providing various benefits to owners.

“With this fundraising effort, we will start turning all our planning into something real,” said Katie Funk, who serves as the project’s interim co-manager along with her husband, Jeff Hake.

“It is critical we put our work out in front of everyone and get buy-in from our community. We are thrilled to be part of something that can offer so many benefits to our community and farmers.”

To learn more about the cooperative or become an owner, send an email to farmfedcoop@gmail.com or follow @farmfedcoop on Facebook and Instagram.