‘Everybody has been so supportive’ buying from farmers

A shopper displays central Illinois farm products, including PrairiErth Farm greens and hot dogs made from Huelskoetter Pork Farm pork, available at Green Top Grocery, Bloomington. (File photo by Kay Shipman)

Central Illinois farmers able to directly sell to consumers and retail markets reported jumps in demand and brisk sales this week. But the statewide closure of universities, schools, restaurants and other businesses also resulted in lost sales.

“Everybody has been so supportive. We’re so thankful and appreciative for all the business and thankful to God we have the freezers full,” said Logan County pork producer Vicki Huelskoetter, who raises hogs with her husband near Beason.

FarmWeek contacted Huelskoetter and other central Illinois farmers about sales since Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order took effect. McLean County farmer James Toohill raises cattle and hogs near Heyworth and sells meat at his family’s retail shop, Toolhill Seed and Beef Inc. in Clinton. On the PrairiErth Farm near Atlanta, Katie Bishop and her family raise organic produce and crops and pasture-raised cattle and hogs in Logan County.

As for meat sales, Huelskoetter and Toohill described growing demand for their pork and beef. “We’re swamped,” Toohill said.

Huelskoetter is keeping consumers updated on her farm Facebook page and through 600 emails sent to customers. Toohill is also using social media and the store website to inform consumers and share information.

Pork customers are either picking up Huelskoetter orders at designated locations or having them delivered. To prevent contamination, home-delivery customers are taping payment to their mailboxes, Huelskoetter noted. Some of her retail grocery customers have increased purchases as more shoppers want local food.

At his Clinton store, Toohill has seen a lot of customers ordering online for either UPS delivery or to get orders at the store. “A lot of regular customers have bought more, and we’ve had a lot of new customers from Bloomington-Normal, Springfield, Champaign and Decatur,” he said. New customers reported empty meat cases in their hometown stores.

Keeping up with demand can challenge farmers. Fortunately for Huelskoetter, she said 11 freezers were full of product before the demand hit, including orders for carcass quarters and halves. Their next load of hogs is scheduled for slaughter April 6.

“As far as inventory goes, we’ll be OK,” Toohill said, adding he received a dozen calls for halves and quarters in the last couple of weeks. While cattle and hogs are on feed, they won’t reach market weight for a while.

As for fresh produce, retailers and consumers are also increasing demand. “Sales to retail outlets and groceries have tripled,” Bishop said. “Three weeks ago, we had a huge surplus that we’re burning through.”

In addition, the farm lost all sales to restaurants, according to Bishop. Wholesale buyers comprise 60% of the farm business, and restaurants represent 20% of the wholesale share.

On the bright side, online sales for delivery have made more money and are more efficient, Bishop said. PrairiErth online sales were made available via a link to regular community supported agriculture customers and other customers on Facebook. Between 50 and 60 boxes, assembled by glove-wearing workers who bagged individual vegetables separately, were sold for home delivery or pick up at Green Top, a Bloomington grocery cooperative.

With the farm’s busy season ahead, Bishop is concerned about manpower. Half of the employees are not available because they’re sheltering in place. “Now is the time our work starts to ramp up,” Bishop said. “We’re trying to plan how to be able to do it.”

Farmers aren’t the only ones seeing booming local food business. “We’re really busy right now. We’ve never been quite this busy,” said Vicki Kabrick, who co-owns Ed Kabrick Beef Inc., a longtime family grocery and butcher shop in Plainville (Adams County).

On Tuesday, Kabrick momentarily stopped serving customers and taking calls to report the locker plant was scheduling cattle butchering for the first week in June and had only a couple of earlier openings for hogs.

“Because of the (corona)virus, people want meat in their freezer,” Kabrick said. “People who usually shop here all the time are buying 50 pounds (of meat) instead of 10 pounds.”