Rice farm’s jump in sales linked to Stratton campaign, COVID-19

Illinois’ only rice farm is experiencing a retail sale boom — more than 340% growth in demand, Alexander County farmer Blake Gerard told FarmWeek.

The Pulaski-Alexander County Farm Bureau member grows rice and soybeans on 2,500 acres near McClure. Gerard attributed the increase to the coronavirus quarantine and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton’s new ag campaign. On April 4, Stratton shared information and a link to the Gerard’s Cahokia Rice website on several social media platforms. Retail sales jumped 27% during the weekend.

“That’s awesome that she’s (Stratton) promoting agriculture. There’s nothing in the world as safe as the food supply in the U.S.,” Gerard said.

Stratton’s Cultivating Our Communities connects Illinois consumers statewide with farmers and businesses that grow, raise and process diverse food in their state.

As COVID-19 spread, Gerard saw retail demand skyrocket 340% from February to March. Then, Stratton highlighted his rice.

“It’s crazy,” said Christine Smith, the company’s national sales manager, between making deliveries last week. Smith has worked feverishly to keep 2-pound retail bags on grocery and cooperative store shelves. She dropped off 40 cases at one store.

After several years of trying to break into Chicago markets, Smith just delivered two pallets with 504, 2-pound packages to a new customer, Pete’s Fresh Market in Chicago.

“Chicago, we got rice for you,” Smith said, with a laugh.

While retail sales are booming, wholesale sales, especially to universities, have stopped. The University of Illinois and Illinois State University were two of Cahokia’s largest wholesale customers. Since campuses closed, Cahokia stopped delivering four pallets of 25-pound bags each month, Smith said.

“This is crazy, the orders online,” Gerard continued.

To fill customers’ orders, Gerard has tapped the skills of his family, including his high school sophomore daughter who is focusing on online orders, his 18-year-old son and a sister-in-law. The farmer said he was fortunate to have hired a new employee for deliveries before the surge in sales.

Gerard and Smith attribute some of the increase to consumers cooking more at home. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” he said. “You have to think we’re growing our customer base.”

While the volume of demand was unexpected, “we’re OK for now,” Smith said. “We’re thankful to be in the condition to have rice for them.”

Update on The Mill at Janie’s Farm: Sales growth continues at The Mill at Janie’s Farm, the first farm highlighted in Cultivating our Communities and owned and operated by Ford-Iroquois Farm Bureau member Harold Wilken. From March 31 to April 6, sales increased tenfold.