In Edible Alpha® podcast #105, Andy talks with Marc Bernard of Rustic Road Farm in Elburn, Illinois. He and husband Luis farm 18 acres plus hoop houses, produce honey, and raise heritage-breed pigs, free-range chickens, sheep, and goats. They also run a thriving agritourism business and growing value-added brand.
A longtime horticulture enthusiast and successful chef, Marc had always dreamed of farming someday. So in 2011, when he learned of a farmhouse on five acres headed for foreclosure, he and Luis snapped it up. Neither had real farming experience, but they looked forward to figuring it out as they went. Their initial plan was to produce food just for themselves and friends while Marc stayed with his restaurant group and Luis finished up his master’s degree.
The Bernards started small, growing vegetables organically and pasture-raising chickens and hogs. Marc’s restaurant connections provided an automatic market for their meat and eggs, and they started a farm stand and CSA for the community.
Over time, they expanded their farming acreage and now raise about 700 laying hens and 150 red wattle pigs, plus sheep and goats, inviting the community to come play with the goat kids. They partner with Amish farmers downstate for turkey. Rustic Road also makes an expanding roster of value-added products, including soup, sausages, entrées, and baked goods.
Marc says they’ve made many mistakes along the way, teaching them valuable lessons and shaping their business plan. But they’ve stayed committed to organic, pasture-raised, non-GMO, and—most importantly, says Marc—producing delicious food. These tenets have earned their community’s support, so much so that they no longer sell anything wholesale.
As suburban Chicago expands closer to Rustic Road Farm, more and more people come to visit and shop the onsite farmer’s market—plus, the pandemic boosted traffic. The Bernards, along with their well-paid, empowered, talented team, love playing host, espousing a “cherish the guest” philosophy. They’re also intent on expanding access to high-quality food, so the farm grows a lot of food for a local pantry.
But of course, making this multifaceted business work requires keen attention to the numbers, something that Marc has always excelled at. Rustic Road tracks inventory and sales, uses data to determine harvests, works with an accountant, and is smart about financing. In the beginning, they received USDA microloans, FSA support, and a value-added producer grant. More recently, they’ve scored Compeer Financial loan to purchase a building for their own value-added kitchen, won a second Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) to build up their soup brand, and got their first line of credit.
Tune in to hear Marc’s journey in more detail, as well as his advice for starting, operating, and expanding a viable farm business.