Benson farm family delivers tons of produce to food bank, with a little help from friends (and strangers)

A young Woodford County farm family is feeling grateful after an influx of volunteers helped them harvest a two-acre food plot, with the fresh produce destined for area food banks.

Alison “Ali” and Nathan Gibbs, of rural Benson, operate Nathan’s family’s commercial row crop farm that for 70 years produced nothing but corn, soybeans and wheat for delivery to local grain elevators. In 2017, the Gibbs family diversified their farm operation to include a small section of land for specialty crop production, including tomatoes, cabbages and peppers, and opened a small roadside market that also offered farm fresh eggs.

Often, however, the couple’s vegetable production — which could swell to 800 pounds of tomatoes during peak harvest season — would outpace demand for farmers market and roadside stand sales, resulting in spoilage.

That’s when Nathan Gibbs’ father, Dennis, a director on the Woodford County Farm Bureau board of directors anda retired farmer, referred the couple to Steve Ericson, executive director of Feeding Illinois, a division of national nonprofit Feeding America.

Utilizing a state-funded grant to help offset production expenses, in 2021 Ali and Nathan Gibbs became the first Illinois farmers to agree to set aside land to produce food exclusively for local food banks through the Farmers Feeding Illinois “Farm to Food Bank” Initiative.

Excited for the opportunity, the Gibbs’ quickly volunteered two acres of production for Ericson’s fledgling program and set to work expanding their existing specialty crop patch into a 150 foot-long, L-shaped garden in time for the 2022 planting season.

“I see the need (for food assistance) day in and day out in my job at the (Woodford County) Public Defenders’ Office,” said Ali Gibbs, 30, a Bloomington native with little farming experience before “marrying into” the Gibbs family in 2018. “We have the capacity here to help out, and I can’t fathom just sitting here looking at this ground and not utilizing it to help our neighbors in need.”

The couple, assisted by a pair of part-time, teenage farm hands, succeeded in their dream of planting and cultivating a successful food plot. By mid-July, Gibbs Farms’ two-acre garden was bursting with rows of succulent sweet corn, various bell, banana and jalapeno peppers, cabbage varieties, eggplant, tomatillos and more.

Health challenges

But as Ali and Nathan prepared to begin their harvest in late July, tragedy struck in the form of a major health crisis. Already operating as a crew of two without their part-time field hands who had returned to high school, Ali faced the frightening prospect of harvesting the food plot alone while caring for her stricken spouse.

“About a month ago, my husband was diagnosed with some pancreas issues and some kidney issues,” Ali Gibbs said. “We ended up needing some extra hands while we were in the hospital, and we were very blessed when our local Woodford County Farm Bureau Young Leaders and the Tazewell County Farm Bureau Young Leaders came in and basically said, ‘Ali and Nathan, we’ve got this.’”

First hospitalized in late July, Nathan Gibbs underwent a serious medical procedure the week of Aug. 8, which was when the hard-working couple had planned to make serious progress toward their first Feeding Illinois food plot harvest. Thinking quickly, Ali initiated a social media blitz asking for volunteers to help complete their food plot harvest. Throughout the week of Aug. 8-14, farm families, local residents, nonprofit organizations and strangers responded enthusiastically to Ali’s call to action.

On Saturday, Aug. 12, dozens of volunteers — many of whom did not know each other or the Gibbs family — turned out in private vehicles to assist in harvesting around 4,000 pounds of sweet corn for delivery to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank (EIFB). Located in Urbana, the EIFB supplies food items to food pantries in 18 east-central counties, including the nearby Roanoke Food Pantry.

“So far without today’s load, (Gibbs Farms) has donated 2,459 pounds of produce to the food bank (this month) and served 2,049 people,” said Kimberly Berlin, food donor specialist with the EIFB, who drove to Gibbs Farms to lend a hand during the sweet corn harvest. “We have 160-plus food pantries in our 18 counties that will benefit from this program, and two local pantries, the Metamora and El Paso food pantries, have come and picked up food from the farm as well. The Gibbs family is the only farm family in our service area that is partnering with us in this manner, and the impact of this program can be significant for small food pantries.”

Though the effort began humbly with Gibbs Farms’ two-acre food plot, program partners such as the Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois Prairie Research Institute are hoping the Feeding Illinois Farm to Food Bank Initiative will sprout deep roots.

“The goal of Feeding Illinois and its partners is to make this a long-lasting, sustainable program that goes beyond the current grant funding,” said Zach Samaras, technical assistance engineer in sustainability for the Prairie Research Institute, who also donned work gloves and joined in on the Aug. 12 sweet corn harvest.

“Working closely with the food banks and alongside Steve Ericson at Feeding Illinois, it’s become apparent that due first to COVID-19 and continuing now with inflation, there is never enough food to sustain these food banks. Gibbs Farms is the first farm to set aside acreage for this, and with some of the other farmers we’re working with, the goal is to find a home at the food banks for any surplus food they don’t sell at farmers markets,” Samaras added.

“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,” Ericson stated. “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.”

The outpouring of volunteerism and the altruism of strangers responding to her social media plea for harvest labor was not lost on Ali Gibbs, who last week was diagnosed as “clinically exhausted” by her physician.

“It makes me so proud to be a part of the farming community,” she reflected, watching as a pair of young volunteers made their exit from thick rows of sweet corn with full buckets of freshly picked “ears” destined for Urbana and area food pantries on Aug. 12. “Seeing all these farmers helping each other out is what it’s all about.”

More work remains before Gibbs Farms is finished with their food plot harvest to benefit the Farmers Feeding Illinois Farm to Food Bank Initiative; Ali Gibbs speculates the process will likely continue into late September. Groups, organizations and individuals who are interested in helping out with the harvest can communicate with the family through the Gibbs Farms Facebook page, on Instagram or via their website.

Volunteer service on the project can count towards nonprofit community service hours, Ali Gibbs said.

In addition to the Prairie Research Institute, the Illinois Farm Bureau and Illinois Specialty Growers Association are also program partners in the Farmers Feeding Illinois Farm to Food Bank Initiative.