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Report: Organic farming still growing at rapid pace

Danielle Piraino, an intern at Pushing the Envelope Farm, harvests Swiss chard early Wednesday at the organic farm in Geneva.
Danielle Piraino, an intern at Pushing the Envelope Farm, harvests Swiss chard early Wednesday at the organic farm in Geneva.

Ask Elan Margulies about his “organic farm,” and he will pause a moment and smile.

As the manager of Pushing the Envelope Farm on Averill Road in Geneva, Margulies recognizes the incongruous nature of the 14-acre farm on the city’s East Side:

Situated next to a factory, in an industrial park and a short drive from some of the busiest intersections in the Tri-Cities, the organic farm, despite its rows of fresh garden vegetables and fruits and the nearby pens of chickens and goats, offers little in the way of bucolic charm.

“People come here, and you just see their faces,” Margulies said, again with a smile. “They hear ‘organic farm,’ and they’re expecting something a lot more rural, I think.”

But it’s more than that.

For Margulies, the concept of requiring the adjective “organic” to describe his chosen methods of food production seems funny.

“It should just be called ‘farming,’ ” he said. “What we call ‘organic farming’ goes back centuries in human history.

“I see this as a kind of
recalibration, a return by a lot of people, to a more sane, a more sustainable way of producing our food.”

Across the region and the country, the number of people producing food using organic methods has continued to increase. According to a report issued this month by the federal Council of Economic Advisers, the White House Rural Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organically grown food has grown rapidly in its share of the marketplace.

The authors of the report, titled “Strengthening Rural Communities: Lessons from a Growing Farm Economy,” noted that the USDA has indicated that the retail value of the organic food industry in the U.S. hit $31.4 billion in 2011, growing by 48.9 percent since 2008 and almost eight-fold since 1997.

In 2010, organic foods accounted for about 4.2 percent of U.S. retail food sales, the report stated. And those numbers
fueled growth of 6 percent in the number of farming operations certified organic from 2009 to 2011.

Margulies said he sells much of the food, including eggs from the chickens he raises, cheese made from the milk of the goats he keeps and produce he and his assistant, Kate Re, grow in the fields.

Typically, Pushing the Envelope Farm will sell the food it produces through organic food distributors, like Steve Spoerl, a St. Charles resident who owns Lombard-based Farm Fresh Foodstuffs.

Spoerl’s company, which specializes in providing food produced in northern and central Illinois, and much of it grown organically, has for five years provided a link, connecting local food producers to consumers looking for locally grown and organic fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs and meats.

He said farmers can choose to sell their products to consumers directly. But he noted some, like Margulies, would prefer to “focus on farming, rather than marketing.”

“We’re a distributor, yes, but also part processor and a retailer,” Spoerl said. “We’re rebuilding a food distribution model that’s based on sustainability.”

Shirley Stopka, owner of Trellis Farm & Garden store in St. Charles, noted the synergy. Since opening in 2010, the store has seen much of its business grow through the sale of organic seed, fertilizer, pest control products and animal feed, among other items to aid organic food production.

Stopka said her store, run by her son, Tom Stopka, sells its products to growers like Margulies. His farm then produces the food, which he, in turn, sells to Spoerl.

Spoerl then goes to Stopka’s stores on weekends to sell some of the food at a farm stand set up outside the Trellis store.

“We’ve got three local guys, who take it from feed and seed, to creating it and then selling it to people, and some of that done right here where the process started,” Stopka said. “It’s pretty incredible.”

But while there are market opportunities to be seized, for Margulies, that is not the point of the operation.

“It’s not necessarily profitable, but it is very worthwhile,” he said.

Margulies, an ecologist who came to manage the farm three years ago after a decade spent studying, working for the National Park Service and various “Jewish environmental organizations,” said using the farm to increase knowledge is a key.

The farm, for instance, is used to introduce suburbanites to such skills as cheesemaking, breadmaking, gardening, beekeeping, chicken-keeping and even natural brewing – skills that once were considered “basic life skills,” he said.

“We love reconnecting people with the earth and re-establishing some of these skills,” he said. “The beauty of many of them is that the entry level for them is very low. Anyone can do it.”

And that belief that “anyone can do it” also played a role in fueling the rise of a more backyard variety of organic agriculture, said Tom Stopka.

“A lot of people want to know where their food comes from, and they want to know that their children are eating food that doesn’t have pesticides or other stuff on it,” he said.

For many of those people, the only true alternative is to take up a small form of organic farming on their own. And many of those backyard food producers never will be detected by any governmental survey of agriculture.

“We have a few true organic farmers we sell to,” Stopka said. “But the vast bulk of it is to people, regular people, who just want to grow some of their own food in their backyards.”

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