Homework, teamwork, and passion power the 'real food for real people' operation of one Central Illinois farmer

Jeremy Zobrist overseeing the field pumpkin harvest with specially made equipment - Photo Credit: Sarah Zobrist
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It was a strangely mild, pleasant, and cloudy day in early July when I visited with Jeremy Zobrist of Rock Creek Farms and sister company, Top Fox Snacks, based in Danvers, IL, west of Bloomington-Normal. The topography while approaching the Mackinaw River valley is surprising. Yes, hills in central Illinois!

Jeremy comes from a long line of cash grain farmers but is now growing pumpkins. This may seem really “out there” to those who don’t know that Illinois grows more than 90% of the country’s pie pumpkins. However, Jeremy has almost 1,000 acres of pumpkins, not grown for pie filling, nor Jack-o-Lanterns, but for delicious, nutritious pumpkin seeds — Rock Creek Farm’s primary product.

Fields of...pumpkins?

Folks around here are used to the sight of acre upon acre of corn and soybeans; therefore, it’s jarring to see a several hundred-acre field of pumpkins in central Illinois, but exciting, too. Jeremy works with a handful of area farmers to achieve the acreage and scale necessary to justify mechanized pumpkin harvesting and processing equipment. One of these contract farmers, explained he really appreciated the opportunity to diversify his rotation away from cash grain to pumpkins. Jeremy elaborated, “contract growing of specialty crops is on the rise because farmers want and need more diverse rotations to avoid a buildup of pest pressure and other problems. They are looking for ways to steward their land better by reducing soil degradation, and this opportunity helps fulfill that goal. Additionally, grain farmers are taking pride in having stuff grown on their farm and showing up on stores shelves, especially if it’s a healthy food product.”

Specialty crops now a Midwest staple, but room for improvement

Specialty crops products being grown for farmers markets, small groceries stores, co-ops, and CSAs is not really a new phenomenon, even in the Midwest. Local foods and small farms production has taken off over at least the last decade, and shows no signs of slowing down. However, most of the farm products fueling this trend are from agricultural production, like honey, vegetables and fruits, mushrooms, flowers, and nuts. Only a small percentage of those products are value-added, where primary ingredients are combined and processed to achieve a greater value to the customer at a price premium friendly to the producer. Generally speaking, value-adding can be a challenge.

That said, Jeremy Zobrist is certainly not afraid of a challenge. He’s overcome a few to get where he is today. He grew up a farm kid, on a farm producing corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and hogs.

“So very much so I come from a traditional ag and farming experience. But I had a dream to do something beyond that. I knew I wanted to grow real food for people, I just didn’t know how I was going to get from Point A to Point Z.”

But he put one foot in front of the other, got to work, and pursued the dream.

In a past life, Jeremy was a Certified Public Accountant; shortly after, he became part of the food industry by purchasing a stake in a food company, but his farm dreams were always in the back of his mind. So, he conducted a market analysis, to try to turn the company in a new direction, and back towards the farm dream. Jeremy saw it like this, “We wanted to do something different; we asked ourselves: what crop grows well in Illinois, that we can add value to, that would yield a product that consumers already buy at scale, that there is a domestic supply chain need for?” The answer is pumpkins, for pumpkin seeds.

Currently, the U.S. imports tons of pumpkins seeds per year from China. Jeremy saw that the need was there, and to help close the gap domestically would be an added bonus. According to Michigan State University Extension, 100g of pumpkin seeds contains almost 6 grams of protein, and almost as much fat and fiber. Additionally, most of the fat in pumpkin seeds are mono and polyunsaturated i.e. healthy fats. Jeremy’s dream to be able to grow something healthy on the farm for direct consumption began to take shape.

Slow and steady growth

Since having that “ah-hah” moment, Jeremy, his wife Sarah and team have annually attended “the school of hard knocks, for sure.” But they’ve kept at it — starting with 20 acres of pumpkins, while growing some backup grain crops. This year, four seasons in, they’re growing 1000 acres, and are shooting for almost 2000 acres of on-farm and contract pumpkins next season. Top Fox Snacks pumpkin seed products are now available on Amazon and in local grocery stores as well as chain grocers like Sprouts, Safeway, and Hy-Vee. Check out the “seeds” of their story here!

Jeremy explains the biggest challenge for Illinois specialty crops growers as “always, always marketing, or the market. If you have a really strong demand for your product, a lot of the other problems will get figured out pretty quick.” But do your consumers want or need what you’re selling, at a price you can make a little money at? Jeremy offers sage advice for farmers seeking new markets: “It’s always sexy and exciting to plant a new, cool crop, but if nobody will buy it (when they figure out what it is and what they should do with it), then you have at best a hobby and at worst a losing proposition. That’s brutal, and nobody in the local foods movement wants to hear that, but it’s real.

Persistence and "doing your homework" the key

For those of us that have been part of the farming world, we all know it can be grueling work, with long hours, physical toil, and mental stress galore. But if a farmer can say it's all to put a product out there that people really want, that can be the motivating factor that folks need when tough times come. Jeremy expanded on this:

"There’s a psychological component here: is what I’m doing even worth doing? But if you’ve done your homework, trialed some products and you know you have a market and you know someone will pay some amount that will allow you to profit, even a little bit, you can deal with the day-to-day psychology. Otherwise, it’s not worth it and burnout, disillusionment and pain will follow."

 As for the future of the operation, in addition to scaling up the acreage, Jeremey is working on improving their business marketing: their agronomic systems to make their crops more climate change-resistant; and their harvest, drying, cleaning, and packaging techniques. Jeremy attributes their day-to-day success to “building the best team possible. Nothing, and I mean nothing gets done without a great team.”

Finally, the next two questions are always fun to ask any farmer, and are borrowed from the late Chris Blanchard and his Farmer to Farmer Podcast:

  1. Favorite crop to grow: “My first love was and always has been corn. There’s a unique smell of corn dust in the field during harvest on a nice fall day with a chill in the air. Then there’s the sights and sounds of 250 bushels of corn and the auger wagon struggling to keep up with the combine. There’s something romantic and visually appealing about how it grows all year, even if it doesn’t make you any money some years. Practically, though, the answer to your question is pumpkins.”

  2. If you could go back in time and tell your beginning farmer self one thing, what would it be? “Have faith! You’ll figure it out!” As long as you’re willing to be humble and hungry and build a good team. Be grateful for the school of hard knocks, because that’s where you will learn the most.”

MEET THE AUTHOR
Nick Frillman is a Local Foods and Small Farms Educator serving Livingston, McLean & Woodford counties.A fourth-generation graduate from University of Illinois, Frillman has a B.A. with a double major of Political Science and Spanish and a M.S. in Crop Science with a focus on crop production. Before joining Illinois Extension, Frillman completed a field season of CSA and farmers’ market-style production at a small “beyond-organic” vegetable farm in Sandy, Ore. His primary research and teaching focuses are sustainable vegetable production techniques, agroforestry and small-to-medium scale cover cropping. 

ABOUT THE BLOG
Local Foods, Local Farms, Local People highlights Illinois specialty crop and livestock farmers all across the state who are changing the way we think about food and our relationship to it, one bite at a time.

Our team and our blog cover everything from the humble beginnings of our growers, to details of sustainable production methods in the field, marketing challenges and successes, and everything in between. Through our investigations of these topics with the farmers of Illinois, we strive to improve local foods systems, access and availability by sharing their collective knowledge with our readers.