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Bounty Hunter

With the explosion of interest in homegrown produce, finding enough farmers to supply our markets has become a full-time job.

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Anyone who's visited the Green City Market in south Lincoln Park knows business is booming. A nonprofit dedicated to promoting sustainable agriculture, the market is packed with shoppers twice a week, and on a good day there are thousands. But its success has become a problem. The market has nearly quadrupled in size since its opening eight years ago, and as the crowds grew, "it wasn't hard to see that we didn't have enough farmers," says founder Abby Mandel. Green City became a sensation--chef and market doyenne Alice Waters has called it the best sustainable market in the country--but demand was outstripping supply.

Ron Salazar, who coordinates the farmers' market program for the mayor's office, was stuck in the same ditch. "The bottom line is we don't have a lot of farms," he says. "Our typical way of seeking out farmers is not effective." There are more than 30 city-sponsored markets in Chicago, and Salazar says the supply shortage was adversely affecting quality and preventing the establishment of additional markets in low-income neighborhoods, where easy access to fresh produce is limited.

So through a public-private initiative Mandel and Salazar created a job that's not on any career test: farm forager. "I knew that there were food foragers for restaurants and so I thought 'farm forager' was perfect," says Mandel. She encouraged Mari Coyne, whose agricultural work she'd been familiar with for several years, to apply for the job and officially hired her last June. If the title conjures the image of someone digging up farms out of the countryside, that's more or less what Coyne does. She travels across the local agricultural region--northern and central Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan--hunting down and enlisting farms. As with mushrooms, the art of farm foraging is all about knowing where to look: farming conferences, tip-offs from assorted contacts, meetings with recent agriculture program graduates or people who've inherited the family farm.

Coyne is tracking a rare species: small or midsize farms growing multiple crops, ideally through sustainable practices (a concept that, briefly defined, means reducing or eliminating chemicals, building up soil health, and maintaining ecological diversity). But these are the operations Coyne knows best, having spent a year building a consumer directory of Illinois farms offering direct sales for a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign program called Farm Direct.

A graduate of the agricultural journalism and marketing department at the University of Wisconsin who grew up in Evanston, Coyne, now 41, worked for many years in the food industry and was one of the three friends who opened the Three Tarts Bakery in Northfield. A few years ago she went to a Buena Vista Social Club concert at Ravinia, and while running across the concrete to get to the front of the stage to dance, she tore the tendons in her foot. "[It] imploded," she says. The injury sidelined her from the bakery for almost a year, and during that time she reevaluated her career. She decided to return to agricultural studies and, hoping to see "what a good local food system looks like," temporarily moved to France in 2003, where short-term apprenticeships are more common than here. Over nine months Coyne worked on a dozen different farms in Normandy and Brittany, learning everything from beekeeping to millstone grinding to working a stand at a farmers' market. The reality there, she says, is that "small farms are just as much on their way out as they are here."

A few decades ago the economic logic of modern agriculture was "get big or get out." The profits in conventional farming were so small, the thinking went, that the only way to make money was to bulk up. But the craze for farmers' markets in recent years has changed the equation: the higher prices specialty and organic growers attract have made direct sales to consumers profitable. Recognizing this, nonprofits like Farm Beginnings have been developed to assist new and transitioning farmers alike in adopting the niche model. To satisfy urban demand Coyne will need to convince those farmers to make the drive into Chicago. But that's easier said than done.

"We don't just have an explosion of markets in the Chicago area," says Coyne. "You have them in all the outlying suburban areas as well. So to get someone to drive the extra 25 or 30 miles to come into the city, as opposed to stopping in Naperville or one of the outlying areas, you have to have more incentives."

To that end Coyne is conducting a survey of every farm that does business in Chicago, consulting with the farmers on-site and documenting their crops and their ideas. "Some people are growing things that they're not bringing into the market," she says. "There are opportunities that might be there that we're not realizing for them because we don't know their business." With that information Mandel and Salazar hope to create additional Chicago-only business opportunities for old and new farms, such as linking their produce with restaurants or groceries.

"The base of the project is to help strengthen the business coming into the city, to encourage them, so that when they do come in it's worth the drive," says Coyne. "What we're trying to do is not only tap into them to see if we can interest them in market selling but also to get a broader picture of what's available. There are just a multitude of ways these local products can end up on your shelf or in your refrigerator." Coyne recently spoke with someone in Chicago who's starting a pickle company and wanted the names of farmers who sold cucumbers. She's also consulted a local chef who's interested in taking over his brother's farm downstate and creating a farm-restaurant. "If someone calls me and says, what do I do or who do I call or can I do this--I can put people together," she says.

Although the city has earmarked funds to pay Coyne for only a year, Salazar hopes to be able to hire several more foragers soon; Mandel is pursuing grant money toward the same end. It's unclear if or how the information Coyne has collected will be available to other nonprofits or residents who want to connect with local food sources, but Salazar stresses that his office works closely with outside groups. "We're part of that movement," he says, adding that he's asking the same questions as sustainable agriculture advocates. "How do we develop a system where a percentage of school lunches comes directly from farmers? How does it go to the local grocery stores in the area?"

What would help farmers most would be a year-round market, says Jim Slama, president of the environmental advocacy group Sustain. "Something like Pike Place or the Milwaukee Public Market would be an extremely positive addition." It's simple, he says: if you create more venues, you'll have more farmers. He adds that with greenhouses and hoop houses (less-insulated, tentlike greenhouses), the growing season can now be extended the length of the year.

Salazar and Mandel have discussed that idea for several years. "The city, in the near future, would like to have a year-round market," says Salazar. "The desire's there." In fact the city is currently conducting a planning study for a year-round market in the lower-level riverwalk area bounded by Lake Street and Lake Shore Drive. A permanent structure downtown might make buying local food more of a routine, something Coyne believes is essential to the project's long-term success. Shopping at the markets should become "a habitual part of someone's day," she believes. "It's a specialty shopping experience, but that doesn't mean it's an exclusive shopping experience. It shouldn't be viewed that way."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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