Industrial food chain crashes; local food rises

Harold Wilken

Harold Wilken starts unloading boxes and bags of flour milled at his stone mill from organic grains raised on his farm. Wilken converted from chemical farming to organic. Today, his farm and mill are named in honor of his daughter Janie who died at 15 in a car crash. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

Gaping holes on America’s grocery store shelves reflect panic buying and underlying weaknesses in the industrial food chain. Filling those voids are the local farmers and processors who supply seasonal food, meat, eggs and dairy to shops that promote local – like Sous Chef in Peoria, Heritage Market in Pekin and Green Top in Bloomington.

Harold Wilken, who operates an organic farm in Danforth east of Peoria and a stone milling facility just up the road from his farm, has seen his retail volume increase 3,000% in seven weeks.

“We are a short food chain from growing the grains to the milling to delivering flour to stores,” Wilken said late on a Friday afternoon as he unloaded boxes of fresh flour at Sous Chef, 1311 SW Adams St., Peoria. “We’ve hired 12 more people at the mill, and the operation runs 24 hours a day six days a week.”

The operation has someone packing and boxing 15 hours a day.

Wilken said small operations like his can deliver food and respond to changing situations much faster than corporate industrial farms and food processors that can take months or years to respond.

“We are very fortunate. This is where we expected to be in five years. We reached our five-year goal in two weeks,” Wilken said.

Owners of Sous Chef Katie and Raphael Rodolfi helped Wilken unload his cartons of flour with help from Katie’s brother Patrick Couri.

Katie Rodolfi said, “We’ve seen a large uptick in sales and a lot of new people shopping here for the first time. People say they are making a conscious effort to support local, healthy food. The benefits of a store like ours stay local. The farms benefit. There are health benefits. Food doesn’t spend half its life on a truck. It is fresh. The environment benefits.”

After one recent order, Rodolfi said she was concerned she might have purchased too much flour from Wilken’s Mill at Janie’s Farm.

“But it was crazy. It was just delivered and the shelf emptied, and we were ready for another order,” she said, noting that Harold grows the grains, he owns the mill, he delivers the flour. “He puts so much heart into this.”

Rodolfi said eating well plays a big role in maintaining good overall health, but, ironically, health insurance covers drugs but not good, nutritious food.

“We need to expand our customer base through education,” she said, noting Sous Chef is selling nutrient-dense food but people sometimes need to learn how to prepare it.

The store opened in October 2018.

“This is the kind of store I like to shop in. The idea is you are the chef and you cook, but we are the sous chef doing all the washing and prep work,” she said.

Wilken’s delivery route includes Ardor Breads and Provisions that opened recently at 301 SW Water St. Owner Cody Scogin said more than 90 percent of the flour he uses in baking breads and pastries comes from Wilken’s Mill at Janie’s Farm.

Scogin said that his suppliers have become friends. When he called recently for a new order of flour delivered as soon as possible, the truck was at his bakery the next day.

Major food distributors, by contrast, are having trouble keeping up with deliveries during the pandemic, he said.

Doug Sassman

Doug Sassman greets a customer outside his Heritage Farmers Market on Route 9 east of Pekin. Since the pandemic hit and industrial slaughter houses were forced to close, Sassman has seen his sales increase 1,800%. He hopes when restrictions are lifted and life returns to a more normal routine, customers remember it was locally sourced food that maintained supplies. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

Another local store that sources from local farms is Heritage Farmers Market & Black Angus Cafe on Route 9 east of Pekin.

Owner Doug Sassman said, “We have meat, milk, eggs, vegetables. We don’t get meat from big meat packing plants. They shut down (during the pandemic). We get our meat through Eureka locker. They’re booked through December.

They’re a great asset for our area.”

Sales at Heritage Market are up 1,800% and growing.

“The volume started going up in early March when stores were first running out of meat. The word got out there is this little meat market on Route 9,” Sassman said.

For the past 20 years, he used to make one trip a week to the Eureka locker. Now he goes every day. He takes live animals from his operation and some other local farm operations. All the meat he deals with is locally sourced, naturally raised.

He calls this time “the apocalypse,” he said. “People come out of desperation, but once they buy our meat and taste it and see how much better it is, they return.”

Sassman said current shortages highlight serious flaws in the industrial food system.

“If we are three months into this and store shelves are empty, that says the system is unstable. Local is more sustainable,” he said. “I hope when this is all over, we end up depending more on local. I tell every new customer, please remember us when this is over. We can’t return to ‘normal’ and return to the industrial food system. We need Kilgus Dairy. We need the Eureka Locker (organic meat processing plant.) We are proving this is no longer a theory. The local food system is more reliable.”

The “myth of efficiency” tries to assert that industrialized food production that began after World War II and relies heavily on chemicals like fertilizer, pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics is essential to produce enough food for a growing population. It was promoted as more efficient than small family farms, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted flaws in the system.

Sassman said his store does not rely on middlemen but connects sustainable farmers directly with customers.

Heritage market has no employees. Everyone working in the store is a farmer/producer. Cheryl Webb works in the market and owns Greengold Acres farm in Hanna City.

“We are all here because we believe in local. Customers who shop here support 25 different local farmers,” Webb said.

Even in Illinois, one of the largest agricultural areas in the country, more than 90% of food consumed here comes from out of state, Sassman said.

“We shouldn’t be relying on California and Mexico,” he said. “We should support local farmers and keep dollars local.”

Raphael Rodolfi was recently awaiting Harold Wilken’s flour delivery with heightened anticipation.

“He will be bringing a surprise. Somethng that merits a ‘happy dance,’” Rodolfi said with a little two-step.

Among his boxes, Wilken unloaded cartons of yeast for sale at Sous Chef. As pandemic stay-at-home orders continue, virtually every retail outlet is sold out of yeast. Rodolfi said he won’t put out the word until he unloads the yeast.

When something is in such demand, you have to be absolutely certain you have the yeast for sale before you put out the word, he said gleefully as Wilken carried in cartons full of yeast.

Harold Wilken

From left Harold Wilken, Raphael Rodolfi and Katie Rodolfi unload bags and boxes of locally grown and milled flour at Sous Chef, 1311 SW Adams St. in Peoria. Wilken can keep up with demand while major supply chains stumble during this coronavirus pandemic. As a result, his volume grew 3,000% in seven weeks. (PHOTO BY CLARE HOWARD)

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