Many ways to buy local, organic

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118409366012250.jpg’, ‘Photo by Drake Baer’, ‘Alan Schadewalpt pulls weeds out from a lettuce patch on the family farm outside of Dakota Thursday, June 21. Weed control is done almost entirely by hand on the farm.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118409370812644.jpg’, ‘Photo by Drake Baer’, ‘Jeannie McKowan of Brightflower Nursery in Stockton mans her stand at the Farmers’ Market at the Edgebrook Center in Rockford. Brightflower provides certified organic vegetables, herbs and flowers.‘);

Every few weeks, Christina and Greg Stark visit Choices Natural Market in Rockford. The couple agreed on the importance of chemical and hormone-free food, one reason they go organic.

“We garden organic, too,” Christina said. “We buy what we don’t have at home.”

The Starks are part of a larger movement, away from conventional agriculture, that has been gaining hold across the country in large grocery stores, smaller niche stores—such as Choices—and farmers’ markets, which have multiplied rapidly over the past decade.

You might have to pay more for the organic certified foods, but it’s what you’ve got to pay if you want the peace of mind associated with organic, Greg added.

Organic, something of a buzzword today, has its roots in a series of movements dating to the late 1970s. Only in the past decade has the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standardized organic certification, said Dale Baird, crop systems educator at the University of Illinois Extension in Rockford.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 152 certified organic farms were in Illinois in 2002. More than 8,000 acres of farmland were dedicated to raising certified organic crops, according to the Farm Census. The value of all organic commodities sold in Illinois was more than $1.7 million.

“Prior to 2002, the organic industry kind of regulated itself,” Baird said. “It took a few years for the organic standards to reach the USDA.”

Those standards include prohibition of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge in a crop. Pests, weeds and disease are regulated by mechanical, physical and biological controls, which means more physical labor.

Livestock with organic certification must be given organic feed, and must be hormone-free. All raised animals must have access to the outdoors, including access for pasture for ruminants, such as cows.

Since 1990, growth in organic retailing has kept a 20 percent-per-year pace, easily eclipsing the 1 percent rate of the overall food industry, according to the Sustainable Agricultural Network. Organic sales reached $13.8 billion in 2005, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, 2.5 percent of total food sales in the country. Organics may still be a niche, but that niche is much larger than it was 20 years ago.

Charlie Inyart and his family once lived in the suburbs. In the past few years, it became obvious they had to change the way they eat—to something healthier and more sustainable. For four years, he and his family have tended a small farm in Winnebago County, with 3 acres devoted to chemical-free vegetables.

“We haven’t called ourselves organic, we’re not trying to get that certification,” Inyart said.

Instead of going through the certification process, Inyart emphasizes old-fashioned transparency, in the form of speaking with the customer. “We grow locally for people locally,” he said.

The family does not have an agrarian background. They have an interest in the food they eat, and in sustainable agriculture, Inyart says, and in a certain pastoral evangelism.

“We want to encourage people to be sustainable themselves,” he said. This summer has marked the first time they’ve sold anything wholesale to stores and one-on-one with the consumer on the farm.

Karen King founded Choices Natural Market, 6551 E. Riverside Blvd., two years ago when she had enough with spending her Saturdays going to a pair of grocery stores and two farms to get food for her family. Choices has a number of organic and natural foods, from cake mix to beef.

Opening the store had been on her mind for years, she said, and she knew she couldn’t be the only one in Rockford facing a cuisine crisis.

However, she was not without her doubters. People told her a natural grocer wouldn’t work well in Rockford—even farmers doubted. One woman told her it was a California idea, she recounted.

Whenever possible, King said she likes to keep the food from within the region, if not the state. The beef is from Putnam County, a two-hour drive south of Rockford. The poultry is from southern Wisconsin. Milk comes from Wisconsin and Iowa. After all, local equates to something like 300 miles, she said.

“I try to get as much as I can locally,” she said. “Like with chicken, I’d prefer local rather than a subsidy of Tyson or something like that.”

However, when she’s looking for apples in May, she can’t help but order out from New Zealand.

Even though the store doesn’t buy in bulk, as a Schnucks or a Kroger would, she said her prices “are pretty in line with our competitions’ prices.”

Not far from Choices is Woodman’s Food Market, just off Perryville Road at 3155 McFarland Drive. Woodman’s produce area is about the size of Choices, and they also have an organic section.

The produce there is certified organic, said Produce Manager Brad Barnett. In other words, a head of lettuce’s native farm has undergone certification, a rigorous process precluding pesticides, along with regular inspection and additional documentation.

These requirements drive up the price of the produce, he said. “The loss is a lot higher because you’re not using pesticides,” he said, and the yield isn’t near the same. He said customers are willing to pay a little more to stay pesticide-free, to stay as natural as possible.

Ninety percent of the organics arrive from California, he said. This doesn’t seem to be an issue for the consumer—almost all of them are just looking for organic produce. “I rarely get any questions of where it’s from,” he said.

To know exactly where your food is coming from, another option would be the numerous farmers’ markets in the Rock River Valley. There are also 221 farmers’ markets in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The department is pushing the “Illinois Product” badge, a grow local and buy local initiative, said Dale Baird.

Fridays, Colonial Village, 1340 S. Alpine Road, hosts a farmers’ market. Wednesdays, Edgebrook Center, 1639 N. Alpine Road, hosts another. There have also been talks of another farmers’ market opening off Perryville Road, near the new Jimmy John’s.

Shade Valley Produce frequents local farmers’ markets. With farms in both Dakota, Ill., and Brodhead, Wis., Alan Schadewalpt tends organic varieties of corn, green beans, peppers, strawberries and more.

Shade Valley brings produce to a handful of farmers’ markets, while also wholesaling an awful lot of crops, Schadewalpt added. Those buyers often bring the purchased produce to farmers’ markets themselves.

Schadewalpt estimates 99 percent of the produce on the farm is handpicked; they use a machine picker only when absolutely necessary. In the effort to be certified organic, the farm avoids using pesticides.

Gensler Gardens, a local flower and produce company, brings what looks nice to the market, said Scott Gensler. “A lot of hanging baskets, perennials and annuals,” he added. Gensler Gardens recently opened a retail center near the Indoor Sports Center off Riverside at 102 Orth Road in Loves Park, in addition to their New Milford facility at 8631 11th St. in Davis Junction, where most of their inventory is grown.

The family-owned business grows almost everything themselves, from the snapdragons to the ferns to their 300 acres of veggies, except for the shrubs, which they purchase.

Kristen Gensler, also of Gensler Gardens, said the farmers’ market provides another way to get the word out to the community. She said, “People in Rockford are pretty loyal to local businesses.”

For a list of area farmers’ markets, visit the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB) Web site at and click on “Fun,” or call RACVB at 1-800-521-0849. For more about organics, contact the University of Illinois Extension Center at Rockford at (815) 397-7714.

from the July 11-17, 2007, issue

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