State News
6:58 am
Tue March 4, 2014

Amish in Illinois look to form food hubs

Restaurants, schools and other big buyers are looking for local food year-round.  And many of them are connecting with small farms on the Internet. But not all local producers are on the cutting edge, or even on the power grid.

Harvest Public Media’s Peter Gray reports on a community of Amish in Illinois, as they work out how to merge tradition with technology to sell the food they grow.

Clouds of steam billow from a straining horse’s nose, as dozens of Amish families rein in jet black buggies. They’re at Rockome Gardens in Arcola, Illinois. They’ve come from miles around to hear farmer Dave Bishop, and other members of a USDA grant-funded food hub organization team:

“This co-op model makes that much easier to do, and much more likely to be successful.”

The concept of a co-op supplied food hub is simple: growers join together to create the infrastructure they need to connect to big buyers: the tracking, marketing and delivery systems so they can sell local food at competitive wholesale prices.

Restaurants, farmers markets, even a residence hall at the University of Illinois, 30 miles to the north, are clamoring for fresh products. But they need reliable delivery, and transportation is a special challenge for this horse-and-buggy crowd. That’s why Bishop and his food hub team are working with the Amish to create a pickup and delivery route:

“One truck comes to one place.  Okay? This creates the kind of efficiency in the system that makes sense. So there is no question that by forming a group, or a co-op, you can accomplish a level of efficiency that you just can’t accomplish as individuals.”

Food hubs across the country are using online ordering and communication to make local food systems affordable. But that puts the Amish, many in the Midwest entirely “off the grid", at a special disadvantage. All Amish communities treat technology differently, but many have chosen to hire someone to handle their internet traffic, just as in this area they hire a driver for long trips.

”In terms of technology, the Amish make a sharp distinction between access to it and ownership of it.”

Professor Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania is an expert on Old Order Amish. They’re not going to use the heavy machinery modern crop farms require. So Kraybill  says producing local food makes sense for Amish communities that have always farmed.

“That’s just a marriage made in Amish heaven (chuckles) so to speak, between a movement among consumers as well as very good products that are family-friendly for the Amish.” 

This Amish community, struggling in an area where genetically-modified corn and soybeans are king, is counting on the appetite for locally grown food to secure their future on the farm.

These 8-week-old goat kids have a lot to say during my tour of Amish farmer Marvin Graber’s milking barn. But he asks that I not air his voice in this story, out of respect for his beliefs. He’s excited about the opportunities an Amish food hub could bring to the area, even if he’s not prepared to connect to the internet.

Graber does use solar panels to power a phone and fax machine. If he is any example, the Amish in the Midwest will find a creative solution in order to get farm-fresh products to hungry customers.