“I am the type of person that never likes to admit I need anything,” said Crystal Nells, the “C” in C & D Family Farms, a regular vendor at Lincoln Square’s summer farmers markets. So it particularly pained Nells to take to Twitter last week, hat metaphorically in hand. “We are a small family hog farm and need to raise 14000 by 3-19. Please send us 10.00 check?”
“Yes, I need money,” said Nells when contacted by Center Square Journal. She’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 in arrears with her butcher; last year it was the feed company. “Somebody always has to fall behind this time of year.”
Though C & D’s sales tend to be cyclical–peaking during the height of summer farmers market season and dipping during winter–meat farming is a 365-days-a-year proposition, something that even sets C & D apart from its produce counterparts. “We don’t get a break,” she said. “Food and water is every single day.” Picture an amusement park like Great America, keeping its coasters running with no one to ride them. That’s meat farming in January and February.
Of late, small family farms like C & D, located in Indiana, have been further rocked by the climbing cost of corn. “Corn prices are outrageous, so the feed bill goes up,” said Nells. “Animals are eating more because it’s winter, at the same time sales are down.”
Which is why Nells stakes out a place year-round in the parking lot adjacent to the Western Brown Line station. Look for her every Tuesday morning, 7-11 a.m., as well as the first and third Thursdays of each month, 4-7 p.m., hawking pork, beef, chicken and eggs to increasingly elusive customers.
“Not enough are coming,” she said. “This year seems to be way worse. I don’t know why.”
Blame the economy, blame complacency or blame the pigs. Despite the growing popularity of farmers markets and the trend toward local, organic and sustainable food, meat remains the red-headed stepchild of the slow food movement.
Studies show that fewer than 5 percent of farmers market vendors sell meat, and meat typically accounts for less than 10 percent of a farmers market’s sales. Forget that it’s virtually impossible to display (and therefore can scarcely be expected to compete with pretty, shiny eggplants), meat is often considered by customers too inconvenient and costly to purchase at a farmers market–most people have a price point at which their budget trumps their social conscience. They like the idea of pigs frolicking in the field before being converted to bacon, but they’re not willing to pay two or three times as much to feel good about their BLT.
“Believe me, I know how much easier it is to go to Jewel or Dominick’s,” Nells said. “It always takes one of the scares to make people more aware that I exist.”
By “scares,” Nells means something like the salmonella-tainted egg scandal of 2010. “Two years ago, my eggs went through the roof,” she said. She expected a similar bump for beef following last week’s “pink slime” news reports. It never materialized.
Is it possible that C & D, founded six years ago, is too far ahead of the curve, anticipating a market that’s yet to develop? “I don’t even know the answer,” said Nells. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘Am I ahead or behind?’ I don’t know.”
For now, she continues to field orders for Easter ham (last year she sold 151 pounds), while placating the butcher a few hundred dollars at a time. “I need to take in 10 pigs next week,” she said. “I’m scared. They’ll take the pigs, but they won’t release the meat.”
Still Nells, a Glenview native who fell in love with hogs, remains convinced that she and her husband Dan, who works as an electrician in Chicago, can make a go of C & D, particularly once sales pick up in May.
“We’re not wimps,” she said. “In this business, you can’t be. We just need to get over this one little hump.”