MAHOMET – Whether you order the quiche, bison burger or chicken pot pie, the dishes on the cafe menu at Burt and Nancy Asbill's Mahomet store, First Fruits Produce, share at least on thing in common: ingredients fresh from the family's 50-acre farm, located just up the road.
The Asbills run what Nancy thinks is the only "food-to-table" cafe in the area. The dishes served at First Fruits Produce use food that is picked daily, allowing the Asbills to offer items such as a vegetarian sandwich made with locally grown veggies, hamburgers served on made-from-scratch buns and chicken pot pie that uses free-range chicken from the family's farm.
"Where are you going to get free-range chicken that's actually raised by the restaurant?" Nancy asked. "We raise the feed and everything."
Even when a recipe calls for an item not grown on the farm, Nancy Asbill said the First Fruits cafe will use organic products that are brought in.
"We're careful about what we do," she said.
Through their store, the Asbills, who are sustainable farmers who grow food naturally using the same practices as organic farmers, are catering to a growing customer base interested in buying locally grown, natural and organic food.
"The number of people we see wanting food raised without chemicals is starting to grow," Nancy Asbill said.
In addition to their store, the Asbills can be found selling food from their farm on Saturday mornings from May to November at Urbana's Market at the Square – a haven for shoppers looking to buy locally grown, natural and organic food.
"Local and organic produce are definitely high on the list of many patrons," said Market at the Square director Lisa Bralts, adding that part of the draw toward such items stems from an interest among consumers in knowing where their food comes from.
"Concepts such as food miles – the number of miles food travels to get to your plate – are getting more press due to an increased interest in and awareness of sustainability in all areas, including food," Bralts said. "People are becoming more aware of the environmental impact the food system has."
Not only does purchasing food that's locally grown help to minimize pollutants by reducing the need for long-distance trucking, but sustainable and organic farming practices use environment-friendly methods that work to naturally enrich the soil and stop both nutrient leaching and erosion, according to familyfarmed.org, a Web site, food label and expo that supports Midwestern farmers by connecting them with consumers and commercial buyers.
Along with making an effort to provide educational materials about food and sustainability for Market at the Square shoppers, Bralts is encouraging shoppers to have conversations with farmers about the food they buy – conversations like those of Mike Smith of Champaign, who has been shopping at the market for 28 years now.
"You can get to know the farmers pretty easily," Smith said. "It's like being in Italy and you say, 'How's the cilantro today?' They say, 'Excellent' or 'Not so good, but the parsley is excellent.' There's a personal touch to it."
Bralts said asking such questions allows farmers to speak freely about where and how their food is grown.
"That dialogue is extremely important as people become more interested in the origins of their food," she said.
Stan Schutte of Triple S Farms is just one of the many market farmers from whom shoppers can learn a good deal about the origins of their food.
For years, Schutte, whose farm is in Stewardson, had been a conventional farmer.
"But it's all about the numbers, and conventional farming wasn't paying enough with the scale I was at," he said.
While having to work a second job just to support his farm, Schutte began exploring organic farming and realized its potential. He made the switch, and today Triple S Farms is a certified organic farm producing meats and produce.
The family uses direct marketing strategies to sell their product to local customers, including several local restaurants. In recent years, Schutte has noticed an increase in the number of people looking to buy locally grown and raised food, and says consumers are behind the success of farms like his.
He has so much faith in his new method of farming that Schutte has been involved in the building of a multispecies processing plant that will give local farmers control over how and where their livestock is processed. He said the plant is due to open this winter.
Like Schutte, Burt Asbill was once in conventional farming, but made the switch to sustainable farming instead.
Using environmentally friendly methods, sustainable farmers produce food without causing irreversible damage to the ecosystem, and, as a result, help to ensure the operation of their farms for generations to come.
"Sometimes to save a crop, we will use organic products that are two to three times more expensive than the conventional method," Nancy Asbill said. "It makes (things) a little interesting in terms of pricing, but our costs are quite competitive; we're pretty reasonable."
The Asbills are committed to nonconventional farming methods – even if they are more expensive – because of their belief in the quality of their final product.
To help keep weeds at bay, the family uses plastic instead of sprays. They use green manures as fertilizer and raise crops – wheat, barley and different legumes – that are put back into the soil.
"We've literally watched the soil get richer," Nancy Asbill said. "If you have healthier soil, you'll have healthier crops."
Nancy Asbill said she and her husband started practicing nonconventional methods for the sake of their family.
"Ever since our children were little, I realized I needed to feed them differently than how I ate (growing up)," she said. "We have observed as we eat healthy, we don't get sick as much. The environment is healthier, too."
And through their store and farmers' market tent, the Asbills want to offer local consumers the same food they feed their family, and the same benefits they have enjoyed from eating naturally-grown food.
"What we have to offer is our food is picked daily and grown right here where people live; our shoppers don't have to deal with shipping and the problems this can cause with food," Nancy Asbill said, adding that the family is trying to encourage more interest in locally grown food.
"Sometimes people don't realize that you're going to have a better package when your food is not coming from far away."
The Asbills' store is at the corner of Main Street and Illinois 47 in Mahomet.
Getting the word out about the benefits of their product may seem like a large job for small operation farmers like the Asbills. But they and other sustainable and organic farmers across the state got some assistance in their efforts last spring when Illinois lawmakers passed House Bill 130, the Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Act of 2007, which encourages the production, processing and distribution of local and organic food in Illinois.
The act came on the heels of a study by Sustain, a nonprofit organization that has been working to help establish markets for organic and sustainable family farms in the Midwest, that found that 95 percent of the organic food purchased in Illinois is grown out of state.
On the flip side, the sale of organic foods has nearly doubled in the last five years, and the label's popularity isn't tied to milk and produce anymore, with the sale of items like organic beer and baby food on the rise.
Recognizing the potential for Illinois' organic and sustainable farmers, the chief sponsor of the act, Rep. Julie Hamos, told familyfarmed.org the goal of the legislation is to make Illinois the Midwest leader in local and organic food.
The act will help both local farmers and Illinois' economy by keeping food dollars within the state, all while providing training and development for farmers like Schutte who wish to make the transition from conventional to local and organic farming.
"It's the right thing to do," Schutte said of the trend toward organic farming. "All around – for the consumer and for the land."