On a recent morning Katie and Jonathan Funk and Katie's fiance, Jeff Hake, were showing off through their nine-acre organic farm. There are grapevines, corn stalks, a young orchard.
Suddenly, Jeff ran off like a kid sprinting toward his presents on Christmas morning. He spotted one of the pumpkins he planted, finally taking shape.
“Seeing this on the vine like that, like a 6-inch fruit … it's so exciting!” Hake told a visiting GLT reporter.
If he gets this excited about a pumpkin, it's going to be quite a sight if the trio's big plans for Funks Grove Heritage Fruits and Grains come to fruition.
Katie and Jonathan are sixth-generation Funks, the family that's turned its sirup operation into a Route 66 mainstay just southwest of Bloomington-Normal.
They're both deep into the family business in rural Shirley. Katie is the candy and sugar maker, on top of her freelance editing job. Jonathan is a partner in the business and also farms corn and beans with his dad and cousin.
Together with Jeff, a sustainable agriculture advocate, they want to become the next chapter in the small but mighty local food movement.
“I have a long-term abiding interest in getting other people like us who are our age and who are passionate about changing the world involved in agriculture. Getting to be that and also getting the opportunity to bring other people into the fold, that’s what’s exciting for me,” said Hake.
Heritage Fruits and Grains is a spinoff, run by Katie, Jonathan, and Jeff.
They started modestly in 2016 with an acre of buckwheat, then winter wheat. Not a huge surprise that one of their first products was pancake mix— perfect for all that family sirup.
“We’re operating completely separately (from Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup), however we are working very much in tandem of course," said Katie Funk. "So a lot of the things that we’re growing, we’re growing them because they’ll go well with the maple sirup. At this point the maple sirup shop is kind of our best outlet for selling what we have. We have the pancake mix from our wheat from last year, the wheat flour, the wheat berries and all of that is going to go really well with the maple sirup.”
With the popcorn that they’re growing, Funk said they can also make maple caramel popcorn.
'In The Middle Of It'
The new nine-acre operation is right off Route 66, near the sirup shop. If you've ever been out to Sugar Grove Nature Center, you've driven right by it.
"We’re just in the middle of it, like the main intersection. It’s a pretty exciting spot to be,” said Hake.
They're still in the experimental phase. This year they've got table grapes on the vine, an acre of spring wheat and two acres of corn—a mix of flint corn and popcorn.
In the orchard are currants, apple trees, cherries, pears, peaches, almond trees, and yes, pumpkins.
Jonathan Funk, a home-brewer, is proud to say they've also got an acre of two-row barley that might be used for beer.
“Experimentations will be underway for sure,” he said with a laugh.
The USDA says between 2015 and 2016, the number of certified organic farms in the country increased 11 percent to 14,000. U.S. farms and ranches sold $7.5 billion in certified organic commodities in 2016, up 23 percent.
Funks Grove Heritage Fruits and Grains hasn't gotten its organic certification yet. One reason: It's expensive.
But Jonathan Funk, the one with traditional farming chops, says the isolated, cordoned-off location is perfect for their organic ambitions.
“There’s no chance of drift of sprays or any herbicides or fungicides. And it’s great for open-pollinated crops because you don’t have pollen drifts from other fields,” said Funk.
Katie, Jonathan, and Jeff aren't exactly new faces on the local food scene.
Jeff works full-time at PrairiErth Farm, the well-known organic vegetable farm that's a mainstay at the farmers market.
When Katie and Jonathan started kicking around the idea of starting their own thing, the Bishop family from PrairiErth Farm were their earliest mentors. They suggested going to the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service, or MOSES, conference. That's where Katie met Jeff.
Now the trio has another MOSES mentor, farmer Andy Hazzard from Pecatonica in northern Illinois.
Katie Funk loves the community they've found.
“The willingness of people to share information is absolutely amazing,” she said. “And we have found that just about anybody that we ask for help or advice is so willing to give that to us. The community that it builds is absolutely wonderful, and that’s what I’ve enjoyed so far the most.”
For Jonathan Funk, it was Epiphany Farms that made him think any of this was possible. He took a cooking class with them at the Garlic Press.
Epiphany is now a major player in not just the local food scene but the local restaurant scene, with several restaurants open or soon-to-open in Bloomington-Normal and LeRoy.
Hake looks up to places like Suncrest Gardens Farm in Wisconsin, a so-called pizza farm, where visitors can see the tomatoes, wheat and other ingredients before they go into the brick oven.
“To know that they’ve been successful doing that and that they’ve worked out all the details, I want something like that. We’ve actually talked about putting an oven in here. Those kinds of operations are definitely inspiring,” said Hake.
For now, you can buy Funks Grove Heritage Fruits and Grains products at Green Top Grocery in Bloomington and Common Ground Grocery Co-Op in Urbana, or in the Funks Grove Sirup Shop in rural Shirley. They can also be found on the menus of several restaurants and bakeries in central Illinois.
Long-term, Katie, Jonathan and Jeff are aiming for a roadside diner of their own. Katie said they'll probably start small at first, maybe brunch on some limited weekend hours.
“A lot of people are traveling on Route 66 and there’s not really a good place right here to stop an eat. So down the road—it might be a few or several years—we would really like to have some sort of roadside diner here where people who are traveling by can stop and get food that we’re growing right here, or from our neighbors, and get a really good meal,” said Katie. “And I’m sure the maple sirup will be a big part of that.”
One thing that Funks Grove Heritage Fruits and Grains shares with Epiphany Farms and PrairiErth is young energy. Katie, Jonathan, and Jeff are in their 30s and 40s.
Indeed, the most recent USDA census showed organic producers tend to be younger, with 26 percent under 45 years old, compared to just 16 percent of all principal farm operators.
Heritage Fruits and Grains isn't quite a full-time job. Not yet.
“At this point we’re just fitting it in as we can and doing what we can. The hope is that eventually we’ll all be able to spend a lot more time focusing on this,” said Katie.
Still, it's a big step toward a dream come true for Hake—the one who got so excited about that pumpkin.
He's got extensive experience in organic farming and education. He studied agriculture education and policy at Tufts.
He's long been obsessed with plants, botany, and really the whole natural world. But he found that horticulture and landscaping on their own weren't quite fulfilling enough.
“I've always known that I wanted to not be behind a desk. I need to be out here doing these things. And if I have the opportunity to also be interacting with the public and showing them what sustainable agriculture can be like at the same time as actually working with the land, that’s perfect. And here we are just about to make that happen,” said Hake.
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