BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Two local foods growers are thinking outside the box when it comes to their CSA boxes. They have teamed up with a fitness club to provide healthy foods and recipes for its members and with a retail shop to pair farm produce with oils, vinegar and spices for their foodie customers.
That’s not the only area where Cook Farm partners Dylan Cook and Chelsea Meiss are taking a different spin on the traditional Community Supported Agriculture program they offer in central Illinois.
“Every year we grow better and better food, the more we learn,” Meiss said.
Meanwhile, they grow their marketing strategies.
The CSAs for the Four Seasons Health Club and Gym and The Olive Bin in Bloomington are traditional farmer’s choice food boxes provided once a month.
The Four Seasons box includes healthy foods chosen by the farm team, while the Olive Bin boxes also include an olive oil or another product that pairs well with the ingredients in the box. Both often include recipes to help the recipients get the most out of their food boxes.
This year, the farm is adding a new CSA customer, Rivian, an electric vehicle manufacturer in nearby Normal, Illinois, which will provide boxes to its employees.
The farm also offers a flexible CSA option available to all members of the community. As in a traditional CSA program, consumers pay for the share in advance to allow the farmers to cover up-front costs.
But instead of a set pickup window on a certain day as is common for CSAs, this one allows for pickup any time the farm shop is open. The buyers can drop by the farm stand, a big white barn, and pick up the products they choose. They use a pre-loaded card to pay for items, said Lydia Osch, farm stand manager.
Osch emails recipes, especially for some of the unusual vegetables. For some customers it may be the first time they are cooking with bok choy, eggplant or fennel and they want some ideas, she said.
Under the flexible plan, customers don’t get a pre-determined box weekly. They chose what they need at the time.
Hollie Bobell, of nearby Downs, is at the farm stand on a Friday afternoon picking up some flowers and veggies for the night. She likes being able to choose her the fresh produce.
“They are always super friendly and helpful,” she said of the staff.
In addition to the flexible CSA and farm stand, Cook Farm also attends the Downtown Bloomington Farmers Market on Saturdays, offering a wide variety of produce.
While some farmers are leaving markets to concentrate on CSAs, Meiss said they will continue to do both.
“They complement each other,” she said.
During the pandemic, the farm’s flexibility came in handy. When some of their customers, including restaurants in Chicago, closed, the farm picked up more local customers cooking for their families at home.
Meiss said they continue to build relationships with customers. At the farmers market or the farm stand, people often talk about what they might be cooking, ask for preparation tips and even growing tips if they are gardening for the first time.
The next step to growing this business is buying their own land. Currently Meiss and Cook rent land in Bloomington and in nearby rural Heyworth to grow their 10 to 15 acres of vegetables and flowers.
“We have been renting ground for 10 years now. It is time to be permanent,” said Meiss, who joined the farm about five years ago.
The move will make the farm more sustainable and allow it to build the infrastructure they need to extend their growing season, she said. They grow some crops in a greenhouse and hoop house and store root vegetables, and that will expand.
They already grow a wide variety of vegetables, often adding new ones crops “based on flavors and uniqueness,” Meiss said.
As for her own favorite vegetable, radicchio, a bitter Italian green is the winner today.
“I enjoy growing it,” she said.
But ask her again in another season and you will likely get a different answer.
“It changes all the time,” she said.