Oak Parkers work to build connections with local farmers

? Locally produced food benefits consumers, the economy and the environment, proponents say.

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Lowell Ioerger is a family farmer. Along with his wife, Janet, and five kids, Ioerger [pronounced "Yeager"] has farmed 600 acres of commercial corn, wheat and soy beans for the past quarter-century near Minonk. A portion of his acreage?#34;280 acres?#34;is inherited land that his great-great-grandfather was given in lieu of salary for helping construct the Illinois Central Railroad more than 150 years ago.

Jim Slama is the president and co-founder of Sustain, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, located in Chicago (and the former publisher of Conscious Choice magazine). He lives in Oak Park.

When Ioerger's son, Zachary, graduated from high school last year and wanted to farm, Ioerger knew his 600 acres couldn't support them both. Getting started in farming is tough, and many have chosen against it in recent decades.

"The prognosis [for small family farms] is not good right now," Slama said.

The number of farms with annual sales of between $5,000 and $500,000 in Iowa fell 17 percent in the five years between 1997 and 2002, according to 2002 U.S. Census of Agriculture data cited by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Because of ever-soaring farmland values and ever-attenuating commodity prices, smaller farmers have been forced to find new business solutions.

For Ioerger, that meant diversifying into farming organic vegetables. He carved a 15-acre garden out of his farm last year and took to selling his crop any way he could, including at the Oak Park Farmers' Market.

That's where Slama comes in. He founded a new nonprofit, FamilyFarmed.org, a dedicated nexus between organic family farms and wholesalers, markets and consumers.

The organization will present Local Organic Food Expo this weekend at Navy Pier.

"Our goal is to support this movement however we can," Slama said.

Ioerger said he's going to try to come to the Expo, but not as a vendor. He couldn't justify paying the entry fee, and he's particularly busy planting in his newest addition: a 1,300-square-foot greenhouse where he'll start seeds to transplant into the ground come April, and where he'll grow 300-500 tomato plants in the winter, which he'll be able to sell at a premium.

Making connections

He still needs buyers, and hopes FamilyFarmed.org will help connect him.

"I think it's a good organization," Ioerger said. "It's a fledgling organization. Ten years from now it'll be a great organization.

"It takes time to establish all the connections."

Distribution chains for vegetable farmers like Ioerger aren't as structured as those for traditional farming. Some farmers grow specialized products for nearby plants, such as the Frito-Lay plant outside of Urbana. Another option is CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, a way for consumers to pledge support for a particular farm.

Many farmers look to sell their crops by attending farmers' markets or attracting consumers to their fields.

Slama wants to build that distribution network. Last year, his expo worked to build relationships between farmers and retailers, wholesalers and restaurants. This year, the consumer element was added.

"This event is dedicated to connecting local farmers and food producers with committed, health-conscious people," a flyer for the event reads in part.

Slama hopes FamilyFarmed.org, which also provides a label for produce food products listing which farm grew the item, will provide more transparency to food production. Labels will be applied directly to produce that might be found in participating retailers, such as River Forest's Whole Foods Market, or on containers of milk or canned food.

All producers included in the organization are family operations in the Midwest. Slama drew a distinction between organic dairy companies Organic Valley, a large cooperative of 698 family-owned producers, and Horizon, which he described as a "big company that's a big company."

"We don't want to deal with companies like that," Slama said.

The room for growth is tangible and ready, Slama said. The region has an organic foods annual market of as much as $400 million, just 3 percent of which was met by local farmers in 2002, Slama said. He'd like that number to rise to 25 percent to 30 percent, and sees greenhouses like Ioerger's driving growth in the produce sector.

Local is better

Locally produced food has a couple of benefits, Slama said. The food is fresher, with less time between farm and plate. Jobs are kept nearby, benefiting the regional economy. And buying locally saves on pollution, as less energy is expended in shipping.

The expo will also feature a gala dinner, with Democratic strategist and entrepreneur David Wilhelm delivering the keynote speech, and celebrity chef Gale Gand as master of ceremonies, and awards for farmers, leaders and educators. Oak Parker Warren King coordinated the gala for FamilyFarmed.org.

"The gala is really a celebration of what's going on in organic and sustainable practices now all around Chicago," King said. He's expecting about 800 people to attend.

Despite a lot of hard work, Ioerger lost money on his organic operation in its first year. To add insult, growing organic vegetables isn't exactly revered in rural farming communities.

"People just think I'm crazy. They look at me and laugh," Ioerger said, adding that people driving down the country road by his vegetable field last summer slowed down to watch everybody work.

But he hopes he'll get the last laugh when, after having learning a few things the hard way, he turns his organic operation into a success. He's gotten a canning license so he can turn those vegetables he wasted last year into jarred salsas, sauces and pickles.

"I just think, 'OK,'" Ioerger said when he gets funny looks. "They're just too afraid to try it."

Read more about FamilyFarmed.org at its website. Tickets for the expo, from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 6, are $15 for adults, $5 for kids, $30 for a family ticket, which includes two adults and up to five kids. Gala tickets are $100 and include organic hors d'oeuvres and cocktails. All tickets may be purchased online. For more information call 866-752-6096.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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