Just days after the state shutdown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois farmer and brewer Matt Riggs faced a sober reckoning.
“We were a draft-only brewery, so I had $100,000 worth of beer packaged in kegs and ready to go, and with the bars and restaurants, closed, I had zero market,” said Riggs, owner of Riggs Beer Co. in Urbana.
But as a fifth generation grain farmer whose family has witnessed the devastation wrought by droughts and floods dating back to the 19th century, the disaster that arrived in March 2020 prompted Riggs to pivot, not panic.
After locating a mobile canner, Riggs began transferring his kegged beer supply, that was originally headed to wholesalers, into aluminum cans, and before long, the company’s new retail product was on the shelves at central Illinois grocers, including Wal-Mart and Schnucks.
And since Riggs grows and harvests the grain for the brewery on 60 of the 316 acres at his family farm, the business managed to avoid supply chain disruptions that have hampered many food and beverage operations two years into the pandemic.
“The pandemic forced our hand, because I had always liked being draft only,” said Riggs, adding that the brewery is now seeing a resurgence in orders for its draft beer in kegs, due to stepped up demand from bars and restaurants.
“It’s been a weird couple of years, and I wish it would never have happened, but you have to deal with reality,” Riggs said.
Despite enduring two years of pandemic-era hardships, many Illinois farmers like Riggs say their decisions to take risks and embrace new business models two years ago have led to some silver linings.
From local growers who avoided supply chain and transportation troubles that continue to impede large companies importing products from overseas, to the surging popularity of home delivered fruits and vegetables, many Illinois food purveyors say they are surviving, and in some instances, thriving.
“For farmers who could change their business operations quickly, including the cashless delivery of local foods, it worked out well, and it might not have happened without the pandemic,” said Douglas Gucker, a local food systems and small farms educator at the University of Illinois extension.
“They had to quickly morph and change, and for some farmers, the transition went really well, and today, they’re bigger and better,” Gucker said.
Given the dependence on weather and trade conditions, farmers face high levels of risk and a modest return in profits even during the best of times, Gucker said.
But for Illinois farmers who took the initiative, and quickly created “e-stores” to take advantage of new demand for their products, the now ubiquitous grocery delivery model allowed them to continue operating, even during the early days of the pandemic.
“As a farmer, in addition to having plan A, you need to always be ready to move to plan B and plan C as the situation warrants,” Gucker said.
“Farming is a rewarding life, and also full of risk, and they do this because they love growing and supplying food, but to live, they need to make a living too,” Gucker said.
For farmer John Peterson, the founder of Angelic Organics, the early days of the pandemic brought a 50% surge in demand for his organic vegetables, including a crew of new customers who were alarmed by empty shelves and supply chain shortages at their neighborhood grocery stores.
“It was a very hard thing to do, and we were under a lot of pressure, but people seemed desperate,” said Peterson, 72, who operates his community supported agriculture farm, known as a CSA, in Caledonia, Ill., about 80 miles northwest of Chicago.
Some Illinois growers, including Gotham Greens, which operates two urban farms in Chicago’s Pullman Park neighborhood, continue to see high demand.
“With indoor farming, you take the climate variant out of the equation, and can deliver locally grown produce 365 days of the year,” said Viraj Puri, founder and CEO of the New York City-based company, which operates a network of greenhouses across the U.S.
By embracing a sustainable agriculture ethos — the greenhouses use 95% less water and 97% less land than conventional farms — Gotham Greens has a dramatically shorter production and distribution supply chain, allowing them to deliver lettuce and basil within hours, Puri said.
“We saw a huge bump in demand since the pandemic started, and it has been steadily increasing, so we’re doing our best to keep up,” Puri said.
Gotham Greens products grown at the Chicago greenhouses and sold at area supermarkets, including Mariano’s and Jewel-Osco, are not only fresher, but they have a longer shelf life, Puri said.
“We have a lot of consistency and reliability in our supply chain, and at a lower cost, because we’re not having to ship our greens thousands of miles away from where they’re grown,” Puri said.
Chicago Region Food System Fund has awarded more than $8.4 million in grants to 105 nonprofit organizations during the pandemic to address hunger and business disruption by supporting local food systems.
While the funding was originally planned as a series of grants awarded from June 2020 through early 2021, officials have extended the grantmaking through 2022.
“What we really found interesting, was how quickly people pivoted after the initial shock,” said Karen Lehman, director of Fresh Taste, which manages the fund.
One problem exacerbated by the pandemic was the negative impact of the consolidation of food processing and storage facilities across the U.S., Lehman said.
“Some of the meat processing plants didn’t keep their workers safe, and they ended up with COVID,” Lehman said.
“There were bottlenecks and pileups, which really showed the need for decentralization, and not just for meat processing, but for grain millers too,” Lehman said.
For Liz Stelk, executive director of the nonprofit Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a $227,000 grant from Lehman’s organization will provide funding to 27 farms, all of which are within a 300-mile radius of Chicago.
“We’ve gotten a bunch of different proposals, everything from those in need of a really large, walk-in freezer for storage, those who need to extend their water lines for irrigation, and farms that need trucks to transport their products to markets,” Stelk said.
The local food evolution is not only about buying and eating local produce, meat, dairy and other products, but improving equity, food access and economic development, said Raghela Scavuzzo, associate director of food systems development at the Illinois Farm Bureau.
“Illinois had seen steady growth in the development of the local food infrastructure leading up to the pandemic, which I think is the reason why our farmers were really prepared and ready to pivot,” Scavuzzo said.