Popularized by top chefs such as Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, Dan Barber and many more, the magnificent flavor and freshness available from sustainably grown local ingredients are now being tapped into by chefs across the country. As any of them will tell you, though, when the popularity grows, so does the problem of sourcing enough local produce to serve their increasing clientele. One remarkable solution, however, has come into play: food hubs, such as Stewards of the Land.A food hub is a group of farms that have incorporated as a unit and are selling their produce through a single channel. They have proven incredibly successful. According to the USDA, there are currently 220 food hubs in forty states plus the District of Columbia.
Stewards of the Land was founded in 2005 by Marty Travis and his wife, Kris, using their own Spence Farm as the nexus and distribution point. In their case, the hub evolved strictly out of necessity and a perceived need of new blood in farming.
Marty and Kris began selling their local produce from their own Illinois farm to Chicago’s finest restaurants at the most opportune time. “We began in the early 2000s,” Marty told Organic Connections. “Here in the Midwest it was just at the very beginning stages of the local food movement. We caught it at the right time and hooked up with the right folks.”
The “right folks” included Chicago’s top chefs—renowned names such as Rick Bayless and his Frontera Grill, Paul Kahan and his Blackbird restaurant, and Paul Virant of Vie. “I mean, we really started at the top,” Marty said.
But it quickly became apparent that they couldn’t keep up with the demand. “Just after we began—my wife and I and our son, Will, with this handful of chefs—it didn’t take more than two weeks to recognize that we weren’t going to be able to provide enough stuff.”
At the same time, Marty and Kris observed another issue in the farms around them and saw it as an opportunity. “We realized that most farming communities were losing their young peopleWe realized that most farming communities were losing their young people,” Marty explained. “They would go away to college or they’d leave the community and really never come back. Farming had become very big business and there wasn’t room or opportunities for these young people. So we began to explore possibilities of opportunity: young people could come back and farm a half acre to ten acres and provide food and an income for themselves by creating a niche market.
“So we started Stewards in 2005 with a small pool of farms. Very quickly, through word of mouth and some good luck, many more continued to join the group. Most are still with us today.”
The term young people was certainly no exaggeration. “At that point the majority of the group were under the age of eighteen,” Marty recalled. “We had kids as young as twelve years old, one of whom was providing tomatoes to Rick Bayless for the month of August. This young man—who just turned sixteen—will gross $15,000 to $20,000 on his one-acre garden. I wish I could have done that at sixteen years old! And his produce is outstanding.”
For these new farmers, the opportunity turned to gold. “We’ve had many members grow beyond Stewards to the point where they didn’t need the marketing, insurance or support net. They grew to where they were on their own and doing their own marketing and such. That created opportunities for more farms to join the group; we have a limit of twenty-five members, so we’ve used it as an incubator.”
Today Stewards of the Land operates like a well-oiled sustainable produce machine. Every Friday a master list of what each farm is selling that week is compiled and e-mailed to Chicago and downstate restaurants. “I will send a few photos or information about what’s going on—on the farms, on our farm—what’s coming up and so forth to these 180-some chefs.
“It’s kind of like a farmers’ market coming to their e-mail box. It’s first come, first served, and they reply by Monday at noon with their orders. Monday afternoon I turn around and send order e-mails to all the farms. That gives them Monday and Tuesday to harvest, package and deliver to our walk-in cooler here at Spence Farm. Each farm provides an invoice for their product, where it went and so forth, so that we have total traceability.
“Then Tuesday evening Kris churns out all of the invoices for the restaurants, which we e-mail ahead to the bookkeepers or chefs. We load the van early Wednesday morning, pick up from a couple of other farms along the way, and swap the goods Wednesday for payment. We come back to the farm with an empty van and do it all again the next week. Last year we delivered forty-eight out of fifty-two weeks to our clients.”
Despite the fact that business is all done through Stewards of the Land, Marty has made sure that each farm retains its own brand, identity and visibility. “All the restaurants and all the patrons of our restaurants need to understand that just because Spence Farm delivers, it doesn’t mean that Spence Farm grew all of that,” he pointed out. “Each farm has its own identity, and that’s super important to us.”
Stewards of the Land has had no problem acquiring new customers. “In the last month we’ve had ten new inquiries from ten new restaurant chefs,” Marty reported. “All of our business has been totally by word of mouth—we’ve never advertised. We don’t dare advertise.”
The demand from chefs and from farmers to be part of the program led to a second food hub founded by Marty and Kris. “Two years ago, there were so many young people and other folks in the community who wanted to join that we started a second group,” said Marty. “That group is called Legacy of the Land. Now there are forty-some small farms involved in these two cooperative marketing groups—not just selling to restaurants but selling to local grocery stores and University of Illinois fraternity houses. They’re also doing their own CSAs and their own farmers’ markets. It’s become kind of an epicenter here in central Illinois.
“It’s been an amazing experience to see farmers who really, really care about each other come together for a common purpose. It’s not necessarily to do with selling the most or making a lot of money. It was more driven by a desire to create a community of farmers that could provide good, clean food to our local area and beyond.”
Stewards of the Land isn’t just in it for top restaurateurs though—far from it. “As we’ve continued to progress, a whole community aspect has developed within the group,” Marty remarked. “It’s just amazing how many folks are still without food or good food, so we’ve encouraged the farms to plant a little bit extraIt’s just amazing how many folks are still without food or good food, so we’ve encouraged the farms to plant a little bit extra. Or if they have produce over and above what they were expecting, they donate it. We have the opportunity in our own communities to take surplus product to the local food pantries, and we’ve done that here. We’ve done it with the regional food bank as well when we’ve had thousands of extra pounds of squash or potatoes.”
Farming and healthy food education also factor into the mission. “In 2005 when we started Stewards, Kris and I also founded our not-for-profit Spence Farm Foundation. This is an educational component to the farm where we do school groups, public programs, farmer training, chef camp and many different pieces that relate to the full sustainability picture.
“About two years ago the foundation purchased a greenhouse for the local high school. We began working on curriculum to help teach those students about producing food. It’s been amazing—for the past two years the high school group has had a community garden on their property. The products, especially all the potatoes that they’re going to produce, will go to at least two community food banks.
“We’re teaching the kids as a learning tool, not only about production and wise agricultural practices, but also that we have a greater responsibility to our friends and neighbors who need some help.”
Given that Marty is such an outstanding enabler of sustainable farming, it’s remarkable that he did not start off in life as a farmer—in spite of Spence Farm having been in his family for 184 years.
“I didn’t come at it from a farming background,” Marty related. “While my grandparents farmed and I grew up with them on this farm, for thirty-five years I built museum-quality reproduction Shaker furniture for clients all over the world: from Oprah Winfrey to the Smithsonian, to the White House, to furnishing Blue Cross–Blue Shield offices in Chicago, to places in London and Tokyo.
“Then one day my wife asked me, ‘You’re perfectly healthy, but what would you do if the doctor said you really can’t do woodwork anymore?’ I said, ‘Well, we probably ought to do something with this farm.’
“We’ve always gardened and we care deeply about good health and good food, and it really resonated to try to provide that for the greater community. So around 2000 we took out all the genetically modified crops and began planting wheat and alfalfa hay for the local dairy. The farm is on roughly 160 acres—about a 40-acre woodland, around 50 acres of alfalfa hay for the dairy and for our use, and then roughly 60 acres of food production. Those 60 acres consist of small grains—rye, barley, oats, wheat and different kinds of cornmeal—along with potatoes, tomatoes and 220 other varieties of vegetables.”
One marked difference between Marty’s farm and similar farms on the East or West Coast is that he is surrounded by conventional farms practicing GMO agriculture. Marty has found that battling them is definitely not the way to go; instead he has made cooperative friends with the farmers.
“On this farm, like several others, we grow four different varieties of heirloom corns,” Marty said. “Some of them are eight hundred years old. We save our own seed. We’re surrounded by genetically modified corn though; so in order to have noncontaminated crops, we typically wait at least two weeks after everybody else has planted their corn before we plant our first variety. That way when their corn is pollinating in July, ours is two weeks later. Theirs is usually done by the time our first ones are pollinating; that way we can keep them contaminant-free just by planting schedules.
“The other thing that we are faced with throughout the summer is aerial spraying—insecticides and fungicides. On this farm we have lots of buffer strips: we’ve created environments for beneficial insects, and we plant a lot of cover crops. We also have honeybees.
“We talk with our neighboring farmers, and they understand what we’re doing. Many of them will call and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to have one of our fields south of you sprayed day after tomorrow for spider mites. We just want to let you know, so if there’s something you can do to protect your bees, you can do that.’ We’ve also got at least one of the aerial spraying companies that will call if they’re going to be spraying in the area.
“I don’t feel like we can tell our neighboring farms who farm conventionally that what they’re doing is right or wrong, just as they’re not trying to tell us right or wrong either. We have to live next to them; they’re our friends and neighbors. We’ve got to figure out a way that makes the system such that we can both prosper and survive.”
Marty has also found that the best way to thrive isn’t through confrontation but through expansion of his own venture. “We haven’t gotten politically involved,” he said. “We’ve tried to be very community minded—very grounded and grassroots. We’re not into talking about policy and all of those things so much as we are talking about opportunities for young people. And honestly, when you start talking about opportunities for young people, all of the politics can go away. We’re really trying to stay on the positive side of it. There’s a lot of negative too, but we have to be able to spin it and create opportunities more than we create problems.”
For Stewards of the Land, there is no slowing down. They have had plenty of press coverage of their success, which has brought them national attention, opening up a new activity for Marty and Kris. “We’ve gotten a lot of amazing press,” Marty said. “I’ve had calls this month from all over the country—‘How did you do this? What steps do we need to take to make it happen here?’ After a recent NPR piece, we had calls from South Dakota to Missouri, Kentucky, Philadelphia, Nebraska and Michigan. Kris and I are actually going to do a series of video conferences for a bunch of South Dakota farmers on how to set up Stewards groups.”
In the end, it is sharing this model with the rest of the country that truly motivates Marty and Kris.
“What we do with the Stewards group is great and wonderful—but every community ought to be doing this,” Marty concluded. “We ought to be able to encourage hundreds and thousands of small farms and create niche markets for them. There are opportunities there, and we want to be helping people everywhere. We need to take back our food security in small ways—in scalable man- and woman-size ways and small-farm ways.”
For more information on Stewards of the Land, check out www.thestewardsoftheland.com.
Photos by Jankun Studio, Forrest, Il.