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Farm-to-table concept finding its way into central Illinois

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Lyndon Hartz epitomizes the members of his generation who view what they put in their bodies as important, at least more so than generations before them who cared little about nutrition over convenience.

If they have their way family meals across America will consist of home cooked food that came from a local farm, or perhaps their own backyard vegetable garden and far less on the fast food restaurant that dot about every corner or every town in the U.S.A.

In other words, they want to go back to the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did it, said Hartz, 32, who decided while in college he wanted to farm and eat off his own land. Now owner of Hartz Produce in Wyoming, just north of Peoria, he helped form an alliance of small farmers who eschew chemicals and he is a supplier to many restaurants in the area.

His best customers are the growing number of restaurants that have embraced the farm-to-table concept. There are now five in the Peoria area that either call themselves farm-to-table restaurants or are at least on their way there.

Those are June and Hearth, both in Peoria Heights, Edge in Junction City, Table 19 inside the Marriott Hotel Pere Marquette and Harvest Café in Delavan. It should be no surprise that the head chefs and in a couple cases the owner, is of the same generation as Hartz.

“It is a pretty new concept and I think it is starting to take off because more and more men and women of our age group are starting to become chefs or are opening their own restaurants,” Hartz said. “I started getting drawn into the idea of farm-to-table when I was in college and once I started farming, I really started becoming more concerned about what is going into our food.”

Hartz said he has noticed over the last few years that more people of his generation, as they get older, make regular trips to the area farmers’ markets so they can buy fresh, chemical-free produce. “I see that happening and I think the farm-to-table concept and organic farming will become increasingly important to future generations. They also want to know who they are buying from so I think we will see more small local farms get more business, as well,” he said.

Leslie Hiatt of Spring Bay, who with her husband Doug Day owns and works a small farm that doesn’t use chemicals, said they are starting to see their business grow as time goes by. They started selling produce only a few years ago and now count four or five restaurants as customers and they vend from at least one farmers’ market during the summer.

“I think ‘local’ has become the new organic. People are more concerned about buying produce and other foods, including meat, from local farms. Sure a lot look for organic farms and they are getting more concerned about what they are eating, but it is important to them to support local farmers and help the local economy,” she said.

Hiatt said she and Day heard from a lot of people a few years ago when a bad crop of cantaloupes that had been mass produced from a farming hub in the south caused hundreds to become ill. “People hear that and it worries them. They want to get their food from somebody they know,” said Hiatt, who with Day and Hartz and a couple other area farmers formed Good Earth Food Alliance. Through GEFA customers can get organic vegetables and grain fed beef and other chemical free foods.

“We’re nearly year-round because two of the farmers have hoophouses that let them grow produce in the winter,” she said.

One of those is Hartz, who said his hoophouse, which resembles a greenhouse, has enabled him to grow his operation and he believes he’ll be able to continue growing. “I’m limited only by the size of my hoophouse. I may build more as the need arises,” he said.

The restaurateurs who are or want to be farm-to-table hope that becomes reality because the more local they can buy produce in the winter the more they can keep their costs —and thus their prices —in check.

“It isn’t easy finding vegetables locally during the winter, so when we buy from suppliers we still insist on the freshest possible,” said Dustin Allen, owner and executive chef at Edge. “We manage as best we can. But having them clean of chemicals is most important.”

Josh Lanning, head chef at Harvest Café, said the relationships that the restaurateurs build with the farmers is important, not only in the quality of the food but in the friendships that grow from a common desire to put quality food on the table. Farmers, he said, are very conscious of what is going into their bodies as well. “It is not odd at all to see a farmer pull up here, unload his produce, then come inside for a meal,” he said.

Josh Adams, who opened a lot of eyes to the farm-to-table concept when he opened June more than five years ago, said the best way to control the costs will be to get more local farmers involved, but first it must be worth their efforts. “When I first opened Peoria was really behind in embracing the concept. I thought we’d be able to convert more people more quickly than we have. But it is growing and there is a lot of great work being done by farmers in the area,” said Adams, who counts among his accolades a couple of Best New Chef awards by reputable sources.

Hugh Higgins is the newest of the bunch, having opened Hearth just a few months ago. He said he doesn’t like to claim his restaurant is farm-to-table yet, “but we are getting there. I can’t wait for this spring and summer and the wonderful bounty they will bring. I am hoping it will be such I can bring my costs down. Right now we are biting the bullet of some of these costs because I believe in the concept of using local farms first and serving the best quality of food.”

More people want to learn to cook using organic food, as well, said Bill Turney, owner and chief instructor at From The Field cooking school in Morton. He uses the freshest foods he can get when teaching classes because that’s not only his preference, it is increasingly becoming the choice of his students. He fills his four-part healthy cooking classes regularly.

“Part of what I teach is how to shop for foods at the grocery. I tell my students that if they can’t understand something on the label that’s going into the food, put it back. I try to get them to adopt a healthy attitude about healthy food and we are seeing more people coming around. Farm-to-table is the big buzzword but really, it should just be that way anyway. But because of TV dinners and fast foods and because we have become a very mobile society, we’ve lost generations that really don’t know how to cook,” he said.

Turney said he is pleased the concept is catching on. “I really don’t think it’s a fad and I’ll tell you why: The young people are starting to make the connection between organic and healthy foods. That GMO (genetically modified organisms) stuff is real creepy stuff and people are figuring it out,” he said.

The farm-to-table issue is getting more notice in Washington, D.C., as well. The recently approved Farm Bill provides more resources for organic agriculture and supporting the use of local foods. The bill triples to $1.2 billion the amount of funding earmarked for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program that support local and regional food enterprises. It also allows food stamps to be used at farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs and provides the technology equipment that allows farmers markets and other outlets to accept food stamps.

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline,, and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said recently in a talk to area farmers that those provisions in the farm bill “open the home-grown foods to whole new markets. I think we’re going to see a whole new niche in farming and it will go a long way in getting new people involved in agriculture.”

Those provisions and others that provide for healthy foods and healthy eating, she added, made some of the compromises in the Farm Bill more palatable.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).