Roger Shuttek

Roger Shuttek stocks shelves in his tiny market in Hurst, Ill. Shuttek is among many niche farmers who are seeing increased sales during the pandemic.

HURST, Ill. — It’s difficult to find any positives in the COVID-19 pandemic. But one may be that niche farmers are gaining customers.

Roger Shuttek of Big Muddy Hogs is benefiting from what began as food shortages at supermarkets. The tiny retail shop at his Williamson County farm is humming.

“In the very beginning when everyone was trying to stock up and there were shortages everywhere, we didn’t have those same shortages,” he said of the farm he and his wife, Tina, operates. “If I get low on eggs or hamburger I can call the farmer directly and get that immediately.”

Shuttek raises free-range hogs and laying hens. But he has also turned his place into a clearinghouse for locally produced foods.

“When people couldn’t find hamburger or eggs, we had plenty,” he said. “People started coming here because there was no other place to get it. Now they see the quality of the products. Grocery stores are doing better now, but people appreciate the quality and the fact that it’s all local.”

Shuttek isn’t alone. A beginning farmer program sponsored by the southern Illinois organization Food Works has trained 36 new farmers in the past six years. And those who have small farms are seeing more customers since the pandemic began affecting food supplies in March.

“There is a silver lining to it,” said Jennifer Paulson, executive director of Food Works. “The shortages in the grocery stores pointed out the issues with our food system and how vulnerable it is. I have heard from farmers that people are seeking local sources more. Especially local farmers who have an online presence.

“People need to be aware of where their food comes from and what goes into it. It’s a whole lot easier to do that if you have a local source.”

Shuttek began his farm in 2012, when he started raising Mulefoot and Waddle hogs, whose meat appeals to many who like the taste and the method in which they are grown.

“Our main thing is our pork. We raise heritage breeds,” he said. “They’re not like the super lean pigs they’re raising on conventional farms. These are older breeds with more natural instincts. They do better outside.

“Their diet being more diverse, it improves their health and the flavor of their meat. We don’t have to give them antibiotics. Their meat is more nutrient dense because of that diverse diet. They are raised very humanely; they have a stress-free life. They wander around in the woods and pasture and act like an animal, not a commodity.”

At first he sold his goods at a few farmers markets. Then in 2016, the couple opened the retail store. In the beginning it carried mainly goods produced on the farm, including pork and eggs. Earlier this year they began stocking produce from other small farms in the area, including meats, vegetables and dairy products.

“It has turned into more of a food hub featuring local farms,” he said. “Then when COVID hit, we got a lot of people who normally wouldn’t consider shopping at a farmers market. Because there were shortages at the grocery stores, they came here because they had no other options. It exposed them to local foods. It showed them that it is available and very good.”

Paulson believes that the impact of COVID-19 may have a long-term effect by introducing more consumers to locally grown foods.

“We’re going to see a pretty hard economic impact from COVID,” she said. “If we can be supporting local farmers we’re also supporting our local community, our neighbors.”

There are downsides, though many may be temporary.

“It does come with some challenges though,” Paulson said. “Farmers can’t produce food overnight. There are other parts of the supply chain. Seeds are slow to get here. Farmers are telling me that is taking longer. For meat producers they’re having trouble getting processing. They can’t get into the local processors.

“You can’t scale up overnight. But at the same time, it’s a wonderful challenge to have.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.