Why this summer’s best prices on produce might be at your neighborhood farmers’ market

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It finally might be Henry Brockman’s year.

As commercial farmers battle record-high fertilizer prices, seed shortages and huge spikes in gas and construction costs, Brockman — who has operated Henry’s Farm, an organic farm in downstate Congerville since 1993 — has been diversifying, rotating 650 crops and using his own methods without store-bought fertilizer.

This year, he already has begun loading his truck with spinach and herbs as he does every spring and delivering his produce weekly to the Evanston Farmers’ Market.

“Pretty much no matter what happens with the economy, it doesn’t really have any effect on me,” said Brockman, whose core business strategy is his CSA, or community-supported agriculture program, which delivers customers weekly farm boxes all season for one upfront fee. He also sells produce at the Evanston market.

Henry Brockman, an organic farmer who brings produce grown on his farm in downstate Congerville to the Evanston Farmers’ Market every week: “I’m not agribusiness. I’m just a farmer. And that kind of insulates me from a lot of the economic changes.”

Ines Sommer

“I’m not agribusiness,” Brockman said. “I’m just a farmer. And that kind of insulates me from a lot of the economic changes.”

Partly due to the war in Ukraine, the cost of synthetic fertilizer has skyrocketed this year, with farmers sometimes paying three or four times 2020 prices.

Organic farmers don’t use synthetic fertilizer. And that — coupled with rising food prices at the supermarket — might give them and their customers an advantage this season.

Several Chicago-area farmers who use organic methods said their prices will remain steady compared to last year at the markets — good news in a business that has had to battle plenty of other problems, including excess rainfall, flooding and other likely impacts of climate change.

Some organic farmers described a tough few years leading into this one, including 2019 having been one of the wettest springs on record in Illinois.

That affected Growing Home Inc., an Englewood high-production organic farming organization that also provides workforce-development training. That year, heavy rainfall caused flooding that destroyed entire hoop houses full of crops.

“That’s a minimum of 8,000 pounds right there,” said Shani Settles, Growing Home’s director of farm operations.

Then, last year, Growing Home was hit by seed shortages and couldn’t find collard greens. The large-leafed green is a significant and culturally important food staple in the predominantly Black neighborhoods around the farm.

Despite these challenges, Settles said Growing Home is committed to providing healthy, organic food to its community, which exists in a food desert exacerbated by the closing of a Whole Foods that had been touted as a neighborhood anchor.

“We want to make sure that we are able to provide what is actually needed for community wellness and growth,” Settles said. “We’re tending to the soil in such a way that it makes us good stewards. And, because we’re such good stewards of our land, we’re able to be good stewards for the community.”

Stephanie Dunn, Star Farm’s executive director, is overseeing an expansion that she says will double production of the Back of the Yards farm and pave the way for a bigger wholesale business.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Star Farm, a not-for-profit farm in Back of the Yards, faced flooding last summer that affected the farm through the start of this year, said Stephanie Dunn, the farm’s executive director.

What happens in previous seasons continues to affect the farm for months, Dunn said.

“A lot of the growers that we work with, they’d be texting me pictures that they were kayaking in their fields,” she said.

Part of Star Farm’s mission is to increase local organic food access. The farm grows food all year, selling it through a CSA program, a mobile market, farm stands and online. Dunn said winter is a busy time because the weather can make it harder for shoppers to get to the store particularly in neighborhoods she serves that have been identified as food deserts.

“What really helps carry us through the winter is those storage crops: apples, pears, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, onions, potatoes,” Dunn said. “There was definitely a marked shortage of those come January because of the flooding that happened the August before.”

Star Farm is in the process of building out a new farm site that Dunn said will allow it to double production, build on its wholesale program and open a co-op.

For this summer, Dunn said she will focus on maintaining the farm’s roster of CSA home deliveries and staffing booths at eight farmers’ markets and dozens of pop-up events.

“This is stuff we’ve been talking about for years, and now I’ve started to hear other people talk about it who it never would have crossed their minds,” she said. “One of our challenges is just keeping that momentum.”

Ryan Stratton harvests microgreens that are grown year round at Star Farm in Back of the Yards.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Laurell Sims, co-founder of Urban Growers Collective, operates eight urban farms primarily on the South Side that sell fruit, vegetables and herbs through farmers’ markets, a CSA program and a mobile van. Sims also is trying to build a new farming campus. So she has felt some impact of rising prices related to construction materials and gas.

She has ambitions to reduce one key cost — soil — by boosting her composting. The collective already does some on-site composting. But, because its sites are spread across the city, it also must buy compost. For 40 yards of compost, UGC typically pays $200 to $300, with a shipping fee of $400 to $500. Sims says shipping costs have increased a few hundred dollars this year due to rising gas prices.

“Buying soil is the No. 1 input for organic farms and for farms that are growing sustainably,” Sims said.

Expanding her composting operation means she will be able to create her own supply — and generate enough compost to sell it to other farms, reinforcing the organization’s commitment to fostering a robust local food system.

Laurell Simms, co-founder of Urban Growers Collective.

Sims is encouraged, too, by a marked increase in customers of its Fresh Moves bus, which travels to different community sites to deliver produce. In Black and Brown neighborhoods that historically have been divested, Sims said, the number of shoppers is now four times what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were seeing maybe 50 people a day, and now we’re seeing consistently between 250 and 300 customers,” she said.

Though the collective is insulated from many larger market pressures, it is not insulated from worries brought on by climate change. Sims pointed to the unpredictability of the weather as a major concern. Colder-than-average temperatures this year have the growers about three weeks behind schedule.

“Things are just taking a lot longer this season to produce,” she said.

A report last year from The Nature Conservancy examined the impact of climate change in Illinois, the fifth-largest agricultural producer in the country, and cited warmer temperatures and increased precipitation. The average daily temperature had increased one to two degrees in most areas, with an increased warming of four to 14 degrees likely by the end of this century, according to the report, with precipitation up 5% to 20% across Illinois.

Vegetables being planted at one of the farms operated by Urban Growers Collective.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times file

For Brockman, that has changed what he can grow on his central Illinois farm.

“When I first started farming, we were too far north for really good sweet potatoes,” the farmer said. “We just didn’t have a long enough growing season. They’re a major crop now. I probably grow 10 times as many sweet potatoes as I used to because it’s a warmer climate.”

On the flip side, he no longer plants greens like mizuna or arugula in the spring because the weather warms too quickly.

Brockman, who has long used sustainable farming practices, said organic farmers have tried to teach the public for years about the importance of local food systems on health and the health of the environment. In 2020, he starred in a documentary about climate change and local food systems called “Seasons of Change on Henry’s Farm.”

A younger generation of customers has started to listen, according to Brockman, who has cultivated that interest through a junior citizens CSA program, through which customers in their 20s or those with children under 20 months old can receive a 20% discount on a CSA subscription.

“For years and years, I hardly had anybody ever take me up on it,” he said. “About five years ago, they just started coming in.”

This growing season, he said, about one in 10 customers will qualify for the junior citizens discount.

Brockman said the supply shortages brought on by COVID might have helped consumers realize the importance of local food systems, noting that, for Henry’s Farm, business is booming.

Several Chicago farms work to deliver produce in neighborhoods that are considered food deserts for their lack of fresh, healthy food options.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ