Woodford County farm family is ‘Feeding Illinois’

By Tim Alexander for Chronicle Media

Alison “Ali” Gibbs and her husband, Nathan, harvest as much as 800 pounds of tomatoes per week to sell at local farmer’s markets.

A Woodford County farm family is embarking on a mission to help ease food insecurity in central Illinois. Gibbs Family Farms, located in rural Benson, has set aside 2 acres of prime cropland to grow produce exclusively for distribution to food banks in their area.

Distribution of the produce will be facilitated through Feeding Illinois, the state branch of Feeding America, a nonprofit organization with a network of more than 200 food banks, feeding more than 46 million people.

The produce grown on the Gibbs Family Farms food plot will be distributed by Feeding Illinois to Roanoke Food Pantry and the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, located in Champaign-Urbana. From the Eastern Illinois Food Bank the produce will be distributed to various food pantries across the state. The Gibbs’ altruism has gained the appreciation of Steve Ericson, executive director of Feeding Illinois.

“No community in Illinois is immune to food insecurity, including rural areas,” said Ericson. Paradoxically, in those same areas that grow most of our nation’s food, households face considerably deeper struggles with hunger than those in metropolitan areas. Thousands of working families, veterans, people with disabilities, seniors, and children in our rural communities cannot always afford and access enough food for an active, healthy, productive life.

“That is why the partnerships like Feeding Illinois and the Gibbs family have forged are so important and impactful. Farmers by nature are conscientious and connected to their communities, and the Gibbs Farm project is an example of putting that inherent altruism into action to help neighbors in need.”

Harvested tomatoes.

The seeds for their food plot initiative were planted in 2017, when the Gibbs family diversified their 70-year-old row crop farm to include a small section of land for specialty crops. Now rechristened as Gibbs Family Farms, lead specialty crop grower Alison “Ali” Gibbs and her husband, Nathan, harvest as much as 800 pounds of tomatoes per week to sell at local farmer’s markets, along with other produce. However, on occasions when production exceeds consumer demand, the Gibbses are left with a bushel or two of excess produce.

“Our family decided to reach out to our state branch of Feeding America,” said Ali Gibbs, who said she had no prior experience in crop production — or even gardening — before “marrying in” to the Gibbs family in 2018. “I had a leftover bushel of tomatoes, so I went through the Woodford County Farm Bureau, where my father-in-law, Dennis, is a director on the board. They referred me to Feeding Illinois; the next thing I knew I was on the phone, and by the end of the conversation I had committed an acre of our land to producing vegetables for their food pantries.”

Ali’s husband surprised her when, after arriving home with the news, he asked her to get back to Ericson and tell him that the family would double its commitment to 2 acres of production. “We went to work and squared off a little ‘L’ section of our farm to carve out the two acres,” Ali said.

While a state-funded grant has been procured by Gibbs Family Farms to cover some of the labor costs associated with the day-to-day operations of the project, 2 acres of specialty crop production inevitably requires an additional investment in equipment, maintenance costs and inputs.

Alison Gibbs and her father-in-law Dennis Gibbs started the project together.

“We’ve ended up purchasing a mulch layer and a transplanter with our own business funds. Now we are saving up money for additional equipment we will need,” Gibbs said. “We will be buying seed-starter kits, and we may need a greenhouse down the road. We’re working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Illinois Specialty Growers Association to try to get a cold storage unit on the farm so that we can hold produce longer. And we need tomato cages, a bigger irrigation system and other infrastructure.”

Working with the ISGA, the Gibbs family estimates the cost of establishing and maintaining their food plot at around $50,000. To help meet these needs, Gibbs Family Farms is planning a fundraising dinner for Saturday, Feb. 12 at Roanoke-Benson High School, 208 W. High Street, Roanoke, at 6 p.m. Tickets to the dinner cost $50 and include the meal, a live auction, and a presentation by Feeding Illinois. There will also be a drawing for a John Deere Zero Turn Mower, valued at $10,000. Tickets for the drawing cost $50 each with sales limited to 500 tickets. Tickets can be purchased at www.feedingillinois.org.
“My husband has gone part-time at his job in order to be able to devote more time to the food plot, and will be our main source of labor. But we’re also going to be looking for volunteer groups like 4-H, FFA, and churches. We will also be offering public service hours to low-level offenders within the county’s criminal justice system,” said Gibbs, who is the legal assistant to the chief public defender in Woodford County’s criminal court.

Gibbs, a Bloomington native, said she has always had a heart for the central Illinois community and feels a compulsion to give back to those in need, especially to the homeless or the hungry. “As a person with the resources to help solve this problem, I think it’s so important for people to have access to food. I saw through the Feeding Illinois program that they were buying produce for pantries from grocery stores that were seconds or not the best, and I wanted to contribute in a way that people who can’t afford the best can still have the best,” she said.

Both Gibbs and Ericson hope the family’s efforts in helping to solve food insecurity in Illinois will be noticed and emulated by others around the state.

“As part of our statewide Farm to Food Bank initiative, we are hoping the Gibbs Farm model will both grow incrementally and be replicated by other Illinois farmers,” said Ericson. “On behalf of the eight Feeding America food banks that serve Woodford and all 102 Illinois counties, we thank the Gibbs family and all of the companies and people that are coming out in support of such a worthy project.”