By TIM ALEXANDER
BENSON, Ill. — When Ali and Nathan Gibbs committed to devoting a portion of their verdant central Illinois farmland to growing specialty crops for local food banks as part of a fledgling Feeding Illinois-Feeding America food plot program, the young farm couple knew they’d be facing a little pressure to “produce” at harvest time.
But when sudden kidney and pancreas issues forced the hospitalization of Nathan Gibbs and rerouted the lives of the couple in July and again in early August, the upkeep of the couple’s humble food plot began to lag. Suddenly, the possibility of not being able to deliver on their obligation to the Farmers Feeding Illinois “Farm to Food Bank” initiative seemed quite real.
That’s when offers to help with the food plot’s upkeep started to trickle into Gibbs Farms via social media platforms, first from local county farm bureau volunteers and later from friends, neighbors and strangers. When it came time to begin their harvest of sweet corn, tomatoes, cabbages, broccoli and more in early August, dozens of volunteers were lining up to help Gibbs Farms deliver on their promise to Feeding Illinois and dozens of area food banks.
“All of my life I have been dedicated to serving others; that’s something my family instilled in me at a young age,” said Ali Gibbs. “We got started on this project a year ago in August, and it started with just a bushel of tomatoes.”
Grown for sale at local farmers markets, the Gibbs family was producing around 800 pounds of tomatoes per week during peak growing season. However, a bushel or two of tomatoes per week were often going to waste and dumped onto the family’s CRP prairie acreage for use as compost. Ali Gibbs soon realized a better, more sustainable use for their excess produce.
“Through the Illinois Farm Bureau, we got connected with Feeding Illinois. We are now piloting the Farm to Food Bank program through them, in order to benefit others in our community that are struggling with food insecurity,” she said.
In 2022, Gibbs Family Farms, a 70 year-old row crop farm, diversified two acres of their production land in order to grow sweet corn, bell, banana and jalapeno peppers, assorted cabbage varieties, cauliflower, eggplant, tomatoes and other fresh vegetables for Feeding America. Just as the couple were preparing to begin their first harvest for Feeding America in late July, Nathan Gibbs was hospitalized with serious pancreas and kidney issues. Not long afterwards Nathan took a turn for the worse and faced surgeries, casting the couple’s first altruistic produce harvest into uncertainty.
Members of the Woodford and McLean County farm bureau offices were the first to volunteer to care for the garden in the couple’s absence. On July 27, farm bureau volunteers harvested the first 2,000 pounds of Gibbs Farms’ sweet corn, along with some cabbage, broccoli and peppers for delivery to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank in Urbana (from there, the donated produce is distributed to around 200 regional food pantries).
With Nathan facing a second round of surgery during the first week in August, Ali sent out a social media plea for more volunteers to help harvest the food plot. During the week of August 8-14, dozens of people responded to the call for action by arriving at Gibbs Farms ready to get their hands dirty.
On Saturday, August 12, hordes of volunteers turned out at the couple’s farm to finish their sweet corn harvest, plucking around 4,000 more pounds for immediate delivery to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank. The overwhelming turnout was emotional for Ali and Nathan, who, while home from the hospital and improving, was unable to fully participate in harvest chores.
“We’ve had a lot of help from the Farm Bureau Young Leaders team, from our local community, friends and family to get this harvest done on time,” said Ali, who had no prior experience in crop production before “marrying in” to the Gibbs family in 2018. “We were very blessed. We’re a little bit tired, but so many people have been so wonderful in helping to complete this harvest on time. It makes me feel wonderful to be a part of this farming community.”
Feeding Illinois executive director Steve Erickson said that the Gibbs family were the first to offer acreage to their Farm to Food Bank initiative. He hopes their model will serve to inspire other producers around the state to join forces with the organization.
“No community in Illinois is immune to food insecurity, including rural areas. Paradoxically, in those same areas that grow most of our nation’s food, households face considerably deeper struggles with hunger than those in metropolitan areas. Thousands of working families, veterans, people with disabilities, seniors, and children in our rural communities cannot always afford and access enough food for an active, healthy, productive life,” said Ericson.
“That is why the partnerships like Feeding Illinois and the Gibbs family have forged are so important and impactful. Farmers by nature are conscientious and connected to their communities, and the Gibbs Farm project is an example of putting that inherent altruism into action to help neighbors in need.”
Though Nathan Gibbs is out of immediate danger and recovering from his illnesses, much remains to be done at Gibbs Farms. Their produce harvest will continue into September, and will require more volunteer labor. And soon, Ali Gibbs will be climbing into the couple’s combine to begin their annual commercial corn and soybean harvest.
Those interested can reach out to Ali and Nathan Gibbs at www.facebook.com/GibbsFarmsLLC.