FAIRBURY (AP) — When Trent and Justin Kilgus began raising goats for meat seven years ago, they were teens experimenting on their father's farm. Now the brothers from rural Fairbury supply food to top chefs in the big city.
"It was kind of a word-of-mouth when we started," said Justin Kilgus, 22, who now raises more than 400 goats with his brother at Kilgus Farmstead, a family-run business that also supplies bottled dairy milk to the Chicago market.
The duo makes a weekly trip north to deliver goat meat to restaurants including The Girl and the Goat in the city's West Loop neighborhood and Frontera Grill, owned by celebrity chef Rick Bayless.
The Kilguses are among central Illinois farmers who are feeding a growing demand from the Chicago market for local and sustainable food and crops.
"Central Illinois is the mecca for the local food movement," said Marty Travis, a Fairbury farmer who founded Stewards of the Land with his wife, Chris. The group is a cooperative of about a dozen farmers who have committed to organic standards of growing vegetables and raising animals for food. Food grown by Stewards farmers is delivered to about 100 Chicago restaurants and stores once a week.
"We've become this poster child for cooperative marketing venturing for food-producing farmers," said Travis. "We've (traveled) all over the place talking to and encouraging work together to create community over this food idea."
Stewards of the Land had so many people on their waiting list, that the couple established a second group, Legacy of the Land.
"Every community can do this; every small town can have a group of young people who farm or middle age or older farmers working together," said Travis. "One farm is not going to feed the town of Fairbury. Twenty-five farms are not (either). It gives people choice and it's economic development."
Travis said the group is accomplishing the goal of bringing young people back to the farm for careers.
Nearly decade ago Trent and Justin Kilgus' father, Paul Kilgus, and his business partner and nephew, Matt Kilgus, were facing a similar issue.
"The thought was 'how are we going to bring the boys back to the farm," said Matt's wife, Jenna Kilgus, who helps run the business. "We needed a way to diversify."
Matt Kilgus said the family chose to make the transition from a traditional dairy farm that ships its milk into a central processing center across the country to one that bottles everything in-house.
"That was a way to add value to our product and serve a market that is there and that we saw a growing interest in," said Matt Kilgus. "Using something local, knowing fully the source . seems to be a growing interest in the community."
Soon after the bottling operation began, Justin and Trent Kilgus decided to venture into the goat meat business and established their own company, Pleasant Meadows.
For Chicago restaurants, the group of sustainable farmers working together makes it easy to source local ingredients.
"In the Midwest, it is pretty challenging to get local food all year long," said Stephanie Izard, executive chef for Girl and the Goat, said in an email to The Pantagraph. "The menu in the winter would be just steak and potatoes. But we really focus on trying to find the most local products."
The restaurant purchases food from about 10 farmers in central Illinois and other parts of the state to create dishes on its menu. The aspect of local food is part of the experience for patrons. And local food will also be a highlight for Izard's new restaurant, Little Goat, opening in the same neighborhood later this month.
"We give shout-outs to our farmers on the menu and talk about where the ingredients come from because people really want to know," Izard said of her uber-popular restaurant in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. "It is not planned marketing; rather we try to spread the word about local and sustainable agriculture."
Amber Plattner, who co-owns Windmill Acres, a vegetable garden in Chenoa, said the Stewards group is building a connection between consumers and farmers.
"You see a guy who gets all the stuff for a shrimp boil one week and then you see him again the next week and ask him how it turned out," said Plattner, speaking of area farmer's markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs that have sprouted up across central Illinois in recent years.
Plattner, who grows vegetables with her husband Joel, said the family has sold to the Chicago market for the last five years. Windmill Acres offers tomatoes, watermelons and root crops grown on about a quarter of an acre of land between Chenoa and Fairbury.
Without the support of the community group, Plattner said marketing vegetables from her small business would be a challenge.
"It works," said Plattner. "With Chicago as a market, it works for us. We can grow what we like to grow and it pays off for sure. They pay well for it and they want a lot."