by Jonathan Wright
Based near Fairbury, Down at the Farms, LLC is a farmer-to-farmer marketing and delivery service representing more than 70 farms across central Illinois. The operation is run by seventh- and eighth-generation farmers Marty and Will Travis of Spence Farm, one of the oldest family farms in the Midwest. “Down at the Farms encompasses farms from 1,000 square feet to 3,000 acres, and everything in between,” Will explains. “Each farm keeps their own identity, but we’re able to market and deliver for those who may not have the ability to do so on their own.”
A typical week begins on Friday at noon—the deadline for farms to let them know what products will be available in the coming week. A comprehensive list is then formatted and sent to potential customers later that evening. “Once that email is sent, ordering is open on a first-come, first-served basis,” Will says. All orders must be received by noon on Monday, and products must be packaged and ready for delivery by Tuesday night. On Wednesday a pair of trucks make deliveries to Chicago, and on Thursday they head to Champaign and Peoria. “Then we reset and do it all over again.”
With their focus on chemical-free or certified organic practices, pastured livestock and non-GMO seed, the Travises are well-regarded pioneers of the sustainable food movement in Illinois. Five years ago, the documentary film Sustainable told their story to the world—and garnered the 2016 Accolade Global Humanitarian Award for Outstanding Achievement. As leaders in this movement, they provide educational opportunities for farmers on topics such as pest management, soil health and plant nutrition, as well as welcoming visitors to the farm.
With restaurants comprising a significant portion of their customer base, the onset of the pandemic hit them hard. “We went from having 45 restaurant accounts one week to only three the following week,” Will recalls. “We knew we had to figure out something.”
Sure enough, a number of opportunities arose out of this challenging time. Not only did they begin selling products made by their restaurant customers—including fresh pasta, meal kits, sauces, bread and pickles—they started accepting online grocery orders from individuals in the Chicago area. While the latter proved cumbersome to scale, it led to the creation of Village Farmstand, a brick-and-mortar storefront and micro-warehouse in Evanston offering pick-up and home delivery options.
“They take about one third to half of one of our delivery trucks every week now,” Will notes. “All of that was born due to COVID.” By the end of 2020, sales had increased by a whopping 50 percent over the prior year—tremendous growth that has continued into 2021.
With the blossoming of Down at the Farms, their own Spence Farm has taken somewhat of a backseat, Will admits. “We had to scale back on products that were more labor-
intensive.” The cooperation and community they’ve created amongst their network of small farms, however, has been well worth the effort.
“Since we’re all working together as a group, we can plan together and figure out who needs to grow what,” he explains. “Many of our clients will tell us exactly what they want, when they want it, how much they want, and what they’re willing to pay… All we have to do is produce it. It’s been easier to get everybody working together using this type of model—and our farms are more successful than they have ever been.” spence-farm.com/down-on-the-farms PM