After renovating an old dairy barn on its property, Bull Valley Farm will now be selling whole milk at its store, adding another local product those in the area may purchase from the business.
“My son always wanted to be a dairy farmer,” said Michele Aavang, one of the store’s owners and a former McHenry County Board member. “[The barn] took about two years to fix up.”
With the store at the farm having opened only in December, the business serves as an example of an industry that has been growing both locally and nationally in recent years: farm-to-table businesses.
Locals are becoming steadily more interested in getting their products from local farms, said Raghela Scavuzzo, associate director of food systems with the Illinois Farm Bureau. It offers a chance to see where one’s food comes from while allowing residents to support their community.
“Farm to table businesses have been in an upward trend for over a decade,” Scavuzzo said.
The industry has a few general categories, McHenry County Economic Development Corporation President Jim McConoughey said, which are each becoming more popular in the county.
They are farm businesses selling directly to different kinds of groups, including consumers, businesses and various institutions, such as schools. There are also those who specialize in agri-tourism, which invite people to see agricultural attractions and purchase their produce.
People want to know the quality and flavor of the food. It’s got some level of assurance.— McHenry County Economic Development Corporation President Jim McConoughey
For one, concern and interest in food transparency has become an issue for many, McConoughey said. Being able to see how one’s food is farmed and brought up, while not having to worry about chemicals, pesticides or cages, is a plus for many.
Larger companies transporting food are designing their goods to travel thousands of miles, which could come at the cost of taste and standards, McConoughey said.
“People want to know the quality and flavor of the food,” McConoughey said. “It’s got some level of assurance.”
At HillBunker Farms in Woodstock, which has been operating for more than a decade, their business is seeing more customers in recent years due to grocery prices getting higher, owner Michele Hill said.
HillBunker offers free range chickens, along with sheep and pigs, Hill said. The lack of pesticides, cages and other regulations on chickens, such as temperature, means their products are higher quality, but not as plentiful at times.
Still, when grocery stores began to have supply chain issues coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it led more people to seek out local farms as a hedge against items not being available, while still getting a higher quality of food, Hill said.
“People are opening up to chemicals and colorings, preservatives and the negative health consequences of eating that stuff on a routine basis,” Hill said. “If that continues little farms like us are going to be assured of a customer base.”
Supply chain issues are a common theme for farms across the state, Scavuzzo said. When supply chains were interrupted, and farms that typically have higher prices began to rival grocery store prices, more people turned to them over grocery stores.
We’ve got all this suburban sprawl out here. We’re in a good proximity to take advantage of the population.— Bull Valley Farm owner Michele Aavang
That interest is helped by the community support that comes from helping local farmers, Scavuzzo said. It also means farms can help each other, as they can stock each other’s shelves with other locals’ goods.
“There’s something beautiful about knowing, it’s only 20 minutes from my house and [those farmers] are a family of four,” Scavuzzo said. “It’s more than just about the lettuce. It’s about the story behind it.”
For Bull Valley Farm, the Aavang family has operated a farm in the area since the 1840s, according to its website. Before opening the store, Aavang herself had a history of attending the Woodstock Farmers Market and selling goods there as well, she said.
“We’re on a corner so we thought it would be a great location for a store to sell direct to consumers,” Aavang said.
That geographic location was part of what drove Aavang and her family to open up a store, she said. Being in a place with rural land, but still close to population hubs such as Rockford and Chicago gives McHenry County and northern Illinois a unique advantage.
“We’ve got all this suburban sprawl out here,” Aavang said. “We’re in a good proximity to take advantage of the population.”
One potential hang-up for the industry is its limitations on what it can produce, McConoughey said. Some produce, such as strawberries, might not be available year-round, which is a departure from what larger companies can offer.
“The industrial agricultural community can produce strawberries all over the world year-round,” he said. “The tradeoff [for small farms] is you don’t always have access.”
Illinois, however, might be uniquely positioned to cope with this problem, Scavuzzo said. The state is geographically longer than most, giving it a longer growing season and in some cases, staggering the timeframes for certain crops.
Strawberries, as an example, will be ready sooner in the southern part of the state, but will last longer in the northern.
What happens in the next three years with funding from the federal and state government will define what this business looks like in the next 10 years.— Raghela Scavuzzo, associate director of food systems with the Illinois Farm Bureau
Farming networks are becoming more popular, too. That allows farms in an area to partner together to provide more produce options, Scavuzzo said. This helps them compete with the convenience of the average grocery store.
“It’s about that convenience factor,” Scavuzzo said. “Grocery stores aren’t the only place you can one-stop shop now.”
The logistics of moving produce is still a challenge, McConoughey said. But this problem is leading to certain ideas being explored to remedy the issue.
For example, food hubs are a concept cropping up in different places, but haven’t yet come to McHenry County, McConoughey said. Those are centralized locations that farmers can drop off goods for moving, storage and cleaning.
This is the direction Scavuzzo is hoping the industry begins to turn, she said. Creating needed infrastructure to deal with these problems is a natural next step.
“What happens in the next three years with funding from the federal and state government will define what this business looks like in the next 10 years,” she said.