GRANT PARK, Ill. – The crisp cool evening was marred only by the smell of a large, lazy pig, but the kids didn’t seem to mind.
You could find them hanging over the bars of his pen staring at all his muddy glory, or on the other side of the farm peering through the fence to watch a rooster strut inside his coop.
Their parents watched them from the bonfire, eating grass-fed beef hamburgers, homemade potato chips and drinking apple cider sangrias. An indie rock band played on a grassy hill, and others threw bags and wandered the 4,000-square-foot garden.
Oktoberfest at Locavore Farm felt more like a well put together family reunion than a 500-person festival — and that’s kind of the point.
“We were drawn to the lost art of sitting around the table with family and with friends,” owner Rachael Jones said. “People step into wide open spaces and they’re around people they know and strangers, around food and music and drink. They begin to detach from the manufactured life, the hamster wheel.”
Locavore Farm, which opened last year in Grant Park, will have served 2,400 people this season during their dine on the land events, June through November. Their dinners for the year sold out before July 1; they decided to add “Friendsgiving” in November to meet the demand.
And this small, five-acre farm in Kankakee County is getting attention. Locavore has been featured on WGN-TV News twice since it opened and has been featured in the Chicago Tribune.
Better Homes and Gardens, one of the top-selling magazines in the country, even came by a few weeks ago for a potential story for 2018. The magazine’s scout was drawn to the story of the farm and the group of less than 30 volunteers who keep Locavore running, Rachael said.
“You’re talking about a group of people that volunteer from the city,” she said. “Everyone has tattoos, this young community that is concerned about environmental issues and food issues.”
“It’s not your grandpa’s farm or traditional CSA program,” Rachael said.
Rachael, a marketing consultant, and her husband, Chris, a biomedical engineer, along with their children, Nathanael, 7, and Evelyn, 4, moved to the farm because they felt like their lives were too chaotic and too busy.
There, they started the non-profit project, which focuses on hosting open air dinners made from organic, locally-grown, pasture-raised produce and meat. Their goal is to get city and suburb dwellers — who make up 90 per cent of the customers — to slow down and return to a more natural life.
The success of Locavore is tied in part to a trend that is sweeping the country. Agritourism, also known as agritainment, lets tourist get a taste of the rural life.
Farms take advantage of their unique nostalgic and family appeal, and customers enjoy everything from Airbnb-ing on a sheep farm to quilting classes and maple syrup harvesting.
Nationwide, the U.S. Census of Agriculture in 2012 (the last year data was available) showed 13,334 farms grossed $674 million from agritourism, an increase of more than 3,000 farms and $128 million throughout just four years. A quarter of those farms were located in the Midwest.
It’s still a small percentage of farms, but growing — just 8 per cent of farms in Illinois have some kind of recreational side business and most make less than $5,000 per year on it, reported the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Trends show it’s small, family-owned farms that are opening their doors to tourists who want to pick their own apples, see where their beef is raised or simply wake up to a sunrise over a corn field. The biggest growth areas are those just outside of metropolitan areas.
And it’s often tied to the local food movement. While city populations get more dense, there’s also a push to experience the natural — through local food, urban gardening or taking a short drive south to the country for the weekend.
That’s why city-dwellers find Locavore so appealing. Their Facebook and social media marketing campaigns have drawn people as far away as Seattle and Florida, Rachael said; as people visit Chicago, they want to spend a few days downtown and a few days in nature.
During Locavore’s dine-on-the-land dinners, for $100 per head, 100 guests sit outdoors at a farm table 100 feet long. Vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free meals cost the same as the regular. Guests eat a five-course meal next to the farmers who raised and grew the food. Locavore also hosted several festivals this year.
Beyond wanting their guests to slow down and enjoy the land, the goal also is to support farmers in Kankakee and the surrounding counties.
“There’s a perception that we’re making a killing, but that’s not happening,” said Sara Gallagher, co-owner of Stella Bear Foods and one of the volunteers at Locavore. Seventy per cent of the $100 charged for the event goes to pay local farmers for the food, without undercutting them. The other money goes toward the upkeep of the farm and supplies. The Jones still have their day jobs.
“In Kankakee County and Northwest Indiana, we have hundreds of family farms growing good food. They just can’t penetrate the market,” Rachael said. “We’ve been able to provide some economic impact for the area.”
“(Locavore) is actually bringing local, organic, sustainable family farms to people through a menu,” she continued. “America’s favourite pastime is dining out.”
Source: The (Kankakee) Daily Journal, http://bit.ly/2dGi6ad
Information from: The Daily Journal, http://www.daily-journal.com
This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Kankakee) Daily Journal.