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Localvores say there's no place like home when it comes to buying food

by Sirena Rubinoff , Elizabeth Ryan and Soo-kyung Seo
Aug 16, 2007


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Soo-kyung Seo/ Medill

Lloyd Nichols, 62, picks up strawberries at his farm at Marengo, Ill.

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Soo-kyung Seo/ Medill

A customer picks up an onion at the farmers' market, Evanston, Ill.

Lynn Fosbender would rather get her vegetables at Whole Foods. Instead, she spends part of her Saturdays at the Green City Market in Lincoln Park because it’s the only place where she can find the locally-grown tomatoes, lettuce and fruit she wants.

While some enjoy coming to farmers’ markets for the overall experience, many visitors like Fosbender say they would forgo the trip if they could get local produce from their neighborhood retailer.

“It’s a big pain,” she said. “I had to take a bus to get here. I have to block out a big chunk of time, but I do it to support local farming.”

Illinois has some of the best farmland in the country -- 89 percent of it considered “prime” farmland, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture -- but with most of that land being used to produce grain commodities such as corn and soybeans, some advocates say that Illinois farmers aren’t meeting the growing demand for home-grown food. 

“I think there is way more demand right now for local and organic food than there is supply,” said Jim Slama of Sustain, a nonprofit organization that sponsors the annual Family Farmed Expo. Slama said this year’s event attracted close to 3,100 participants -- including hospitals, schools and supermarkets -- interested in connecting to local farmers.

“The president of Sysco [Systems Inc.] Chicago said that they’d love to buy a lot more from local producers but there weren’t that many that could meet the volume that they need,” he said.

According to estimates by the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a nonprofit organization working to promote local food production, the state imports more than 90 percent of its food, a number that has spurred lawmakers to action. 

On Tuesday, Gov. Blagojevich signed the Illinois Food, Farms and Jobs Act, a law that creates a taskforce to research ways to boost local food production and provide urban communities with greater access to fresh produce.

 “It’s a different focus on a different kind of farm that’s going to be the emphasis here,” said Ill. Rep. Julie Hamos, D-Evanston, who introduced the bill. “The idea is to make those connections between the small local farms and the local markets that will welcome them. I don’t think we’ve had this kind of emphasis in the past.”

The type of farming the law seeks to promote is similar to that practiced by Lloyd Nichols, 62, a market vegetable farmer from Marengo, Ill. With the help of his wife and three sons, Nichols grows more than 1,000 varieties of produce on his nearly 300-acre farm, and he sells his fruits and vegetables at 16 markets around Chicago every week.
 
“Why aren’t there hundreds of me?” he said. “It’s a fringe existence.”

Indeed, Nichols is a minority among Illinois farmers.

According to a 2005 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of the 69,826 number of farm operator households in Illinois, 17,023 were involved with corn production, while only 1,255 identified themselves as a fruit, vegetable or nursery producers.

One of the biggest barriers to vegetable production in Illinois, Slama said, is the profitability of large farms focused on high-yield commodity crops. Indeed, Illinois produces about 17 percent of the nation’s soybeans and 17 percent of the corn, a feat facilitated by the state’s rich soil and evenly-distributed rainfall.

The market for these products has been well demonstrated. In 2005, Illinois corn and soybeans brought in a combined $6.2 billion, compared with $92 million for fruits and vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Another incentive for large-scale farming is the built-in safety net provided by federal farm subsidies, which compensate commodity producers if the price of their crop falls below a target price. Farmers who grow specialty crops such as tomatoes, on the other hand, are not eligible for these payments. Additionally, subsidized farmers are not allowed to grow fruits and vegetables on their land unless the region has historically produced more than one crop.

Another barrier to local vegetable production is the lack of available food processors and distributors to help them bring their crops to market.

“We don’t have the type of infrastructure to handle produce that they have in California or Florida,” said Warren King, general manager of organic food wholesaler Goodness Greenness Inc. “It’s the packing and cooling, the handling of the product when it comes out of the field. We don’t have the type of infrastructure that’s needed to build a significant produce industry.”

Although the taskforce report is not due to present its research until September 2008, its recommendations could include proposals to create a network of local processing hubs where farmers could take their crops. 

Overhauling the infrastructure could also include investment in transportation networks and extending 80,000-lb. truck access to all roads in Illinois, according to Bart Bittner, associate director of state legislation for the Illinois Farm Bureau. Increasing weight limits on rural roads would help lower transportation costs for farmers, who would no longer have to pay full price for a lighter load.

Perhaps the hardest problem to solve, however, is labor. The problem is especially dire for small farmers who have a tough time competing with the wages offered by corporate farms and may offer less desirable work.

Johari Cole, a small organic farmer in Pembrook Township, Ill., said she relies on her friends and family to help her with the harvest but their assistance is often not enough for her five-acre farm.

“A few years ago, I had beautiful beans just overflowing in the field and I could not get any help to pick out there,” she said. “Everyone wants to eat but nobody wants to do the work…I had a whole field that went to waste.”

The growing debate over illegal immigration is putting further pressure on the labor market, some farmers say, restricting the flow of willing seasonal labor.

The skill level of the available labor force is also a limiting factor, Bittner pointed out. 

“You just can’t pluck someone off the street who has a drivers license and put them in a $200,000 combine,” he said.

Still, even if every one of the problems was resolved, Bittner said, Illinois would not be able to feed itself without help from the outside. Soil type and climate give Illinois a comparative advantage to produce corn over vegetables, he said, just as California and Florida do a better job with citrus fruit. The population of Chicago also makes it unlikely that Illinois will be self-sustaining, Bittner said.

Despite the challenges, the law’s backers say it’s a good first step to reverse the decades-long decline in family farms and local food production.

“The task force is in the education process to bring back recommendations to the governor and legislators to identify the problem and educate farmers about what avenues they can take to maintain or sustain their farms,” said Sen. Jacqueline Collins, whose Senate district is on the South side of Chicago.

As for consumers and producers, the law could change the dynamics of food shopping.

 “You can buy fresh from me,” Nichols said. “I’m selling you something that I’m picking today and you can buy it tomorrow morning.”