Weak Kitchen Chops Putting Pressure On Small, Organic Farms

Apr 14, 2017

A farmer and an extension agent agree there are a number of issues hurting small organic farmers in Illinois and one of them is that a growing number of people don't know how to cook. 

Katie Bishop, with Prairierth Farm, doesn't think poor or few cooking skills are generational. "I'm not a Millennial and my generation doesn't know how to get around in the kitchen very well either." A  lack of cooking skills is just one of the issues facing small farms. 

"There are lots of problems and part of what we're seeing is increased competition. The larger food system has recognized the success of CSA's (community-supported agriculture) and they've moved to capture that part of the market place," said Bill Davison, Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator with University of Illinois Extension. "So now you see large chain grocery stores opening small stores that are in some cases  called a farmers' market and they're catering to customers who want organic food. People have a lot more choices now. Stores are convenient." 

But the food may not be as nutritional or even taste as good as food grown locally and picked the day before it's eaten according to Bishop and Davison. Davison works with hundreds of organic farms in Illinois and the Midwest and he says nearly all of them are experiencing problems. Farmers are losing CSA customers who receive food on a subscription basis and they're seeing lower sales at farmers' markets. Davison said services like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, which deliver meals in a box requiring minimal prep on the part of customers, are also cutting into the bottom line.

Hans and Katie Bishop at the Bloomington Farmers' Market a couple of years ago. This year's out door market start May 6.
Credit Prairierth Farm

Farmers like Katie Bishop are also teaching people to cook. She and her husband Hans help run a 300 acre farm owned by Hans' father Dave Bishop called Prairierth Farm. Fifteen acres is dedicated to growing organic vegetables sold at farmers' market, CSA subscriptions, and to a distributor in the Chicago area. 

"The feedback that we've received is that they don't know how to prepare all of this fresh food. I can provide them recipes, but if they don't understand the basic skills of roasting and sauteing and that kind of thing, we need to go back to the basics," Bishop said during Sound Ideas.

Davison thinks the extra steps Bishop is taking, such as teaching people to cook, is just as important to the farmer as it is to the customer. 

"Cooking is really one of the most important things people can do  for their health, for their family, for the life skills of their kids so I'm not giving up yet. We really are going to make a push to teach people basic cooking skills," said Davison. 

A typical Prairierth Farm CSA autumn share.
Credit Prairierth Farm

Davison also said teaching people how to use the food will help eliminate one of the major reasons people drop out of a CSA: the guilt of doing nothing with the food and letting it spoil. 

Bishop not only provides recipes at her farmers' market booths, but has written a cookbook. 

"They (CSA subscribers) get a copy of the cookbook that I wrote for them. It is organized by vegetable, so if they get rutabaga and they don't know what to do with rutabagas, they go to R and they find rutabaga and find how to store it, preserve it, and cook it," said Bishop. "In addition to that cookbook they get a weekly newsletter that has links to online recipes and tips from me."

When asked how easy she has to make it for customers in order for Prairierth Farms to be successful she said "we'll see this year." 

"We haven't really invested this much time and effort in teaching our consumers. Before it was just about the connection and relationship with the farmer. I would teach them in passing," said Bishop. "I don't want to increase the cost of our CSA to cover my expenses, but we'll have to see."

Bishop worked harder this year to land the same number of CSA customers as last year. Subscribers get 24 weeks of produce. The Bishop's have also purchased a refrigerated truck to offer limited CSA home delivery. 

Davison said some farmers could let fields go fallow or shift their focus to more wholesale distribution. Some are also trying to get slots at more farmers' markets. 

Bishop and Prairierth Farm will be at the first outdoor Downtown Bloomington Farmers' Market of the season on May 6. 

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