It’s a quiet, misty morning as we crunch our way down a gravel drive. You wouldn’t guess what was waiting for us on the other side of the small door we’re approaching. As we step inside, we’re greeted by a murmur of conversation, which reminds me of walking into a busy cafeteria on the first day of school.

At that thought, I laugh and the noise catches their attention. That’s when 4,000 turkeys turned, in unison, to check us out. My expression solicited a chuckle from my guide.

“Want to know what the number one question I get asked every year is?” Brent Yordy asks with a twinkle in his eye.

“What’s that?”

“Are turkeys really as dumb as they seem?” he answers with a chuckle.

“So are they?”

“Well, I tell my customers they are only as dumb as the guy who raised them,” he replies.

That’s anything but the case. Whether it’s raising turkeys, cattle or sheep, central Illinois farmers know more than a thing or two about why local food is so important, and they’re just waiting for you to ask—and buy.

With the last farmers’ market tent packed away for the season, you might think your days of enjoying fresh, local foods are done for another year. But they’re not. And if you’re looking to entertain family and friends this holiday season, it’s well worth the extra effort to feed them well with locally-grown poultry and meat.

According to the 2007 Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Act, more than 90 percent of the food in our state is imported, traveling an average of 1,500 miles to reach our plates. Not only can we shorten that distance by taking a quick jaunt over the hills and through the woods, we can also learn more about our food than we ever knew before.

Just as we celebrate family traditions during the holidays, it’s these same traditions that have led many local farmers into the family business. Take for example, Brent Yordy, a third-generation turkey farmer.

“My grandfather always said a happy turkey tastes better, so my number one concern is keeping the turkeys happy. They’re not good to me if I’m not good to them,” explained Yordy, of Yordy Turkey Farm in Morton.

And being good to them involves a lot of work on his behalf. The 10,000 turkeys he raises for holiday sales are with him from their first days out of their shells—literally raising them from the ground up by growing, grinding and mixing their own feed.

“There are two things that determine the quality of your meat: the age of the animal and what it is fed. If you buy a turkey from us, you’ll know where your turkey came from, and there are no generic 800 numbers to call. If you have a question about our product, you call me,” Yordy said.

That assurance has led to increased sales the last three years. While most area farmers would agree that Peoria-area residents are a bit behind the trend in seeking out local foods, they’ll also agree that local demand is increasing.

Doug Sassman of the Heritage Farmers’ Market in Pekin can attest to this. He opened his outdoor farmers’ market three years ago and didn’t close, even when the first snowflakes began to fall. “People just kept coming,” he said. “They didn’t care about the snow or the cold—even on the coldest day of the year.”

This winter should be easier for Sassman and the local farmers and producers with whom he works, as the market has moved to an indoor location. The market features beef, pork and eggs raised by Sassman himself, plus poultry and produce from neighboring farms, along with a selection of local cheeses, wines, honey, jams, breads and more.

Sassman was raised to enjoy farm-fresh beef, pork and eggs, and offering this quality is at the core of his business as he strives to encourage relationships between producers and consumers.

“Local food is infinitely better. You’d never trust a stranger with your credit card, but you’ll trust them with your food. The farmers at our market offer an open invitation to visit their farms,” Sassman added. “Our business is growing by word of mouth, and all of it is supporting the local economy and going back to the farmers who work so hard.”

The old phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” is a common theme when sourcing local foods. This is something Jim Hicks of the Blue Ridge Family Farm knows well. Located near Chillicothe, Hicks raises two small herds of sheep annually. “I guess you could say we have a hobby herd. We receive several inquiries from people looking for lamb, and once we get a customer, they spread the word to their friends,” Hicks said.

When his daughter was young, a friend gave her four sheep. That was more than 25 years ago, and the family, which grows 200 acres of organic seed, corn, oats, rye, wheat and more, still has a small herd today.

“The lamb in the grocery store travels quite a distance and is often from an older animal. But our sheep are lovingly raised and pampered. That’s something you can tell when preparing our lamb at home. It’s sweet and tender,” Hicks added.

Since his sheep are pasture-raised, we take a walk through the dewy grass to see them up close. As we walk, we talk about how to reach customers. “Grain is easy, it can be sold all over the world. But everyone I know is trying to find a way to sell their locally-raised produce, beef, chicken and eggs,” Hicks noted.

It takes extra effort to buy local foods, but it’s well worth it. Along the way, you’ll meet people who have a passion for what they do, who take pride in the quality of what they offer, and in the end, a tradition you start for the holidays may become a new way to live year-round. a&s