Sun, Feb

Demand for Produce Farmers Outpacing Supply

More Illinois consumers want fresh, local food. But Illinois farmers may not be growing enough to meet the demand.

More Illinois consumers want fresh, local food. But Illinois farmers may not be growing enough to meet the demand.

Currently there are 157 farmers' markets in Illinois, from Carbondale to Chicago. That number could rise to 200 by the end of this summer, said Bob Reese, a marketing specialist with the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Farmers' markets are "definitely increasing in number and size, but we're still limited to a number of producers who can work at them. ... That's beginning to become more of a factor. Different communities want to start a market, but we're running out of producers to come supply it," Reese said.

At one time, back before World War II, Illinois was a top producer of fruit and vegetables, said Jim Slama, president of Chicago-based Sustain, an organization that promotes sustainable farming and growth.

But growing vegetables is labor-intensive, and over time, farmers shifted to larger, more profitable operations that focused on growing corn and soybeans.

Now, the amount of produce grown in Illinois is less than 3 percent of the amount of produce consumed in the state, Reese said.

"The emphasis has always been on conventional agriculture, and not that that's a bad thing, that's what we do extremely well here; but for the young producer, this is an opportunity to make a living raising produce as opposed to trying to compete with large-scale farmers," Reese said.

Somewhere along the way, consumers started to ask more for fresh, local food from stores and restaurants.

Jim and Diann Moore of Watseka have been growing produce and livestock without the use of synthetic pesticides or growth hormones for 18 years.

Demand has been good, "but in the last three years, there's been a real push for people to find a farmer to buy from," Diann said at a recent talk to Champaign County women landowners.

"The market for organic is booming. The market for local organic is off the charts," Slama said. "Currently production is not meeting demand," he said.

Earlier this month the group held its first FamilyFarmed.org expo at Navy Pier. One day, consumers browsed the exhibit hall, and on the second day, supermarkets and restaurants came. Attendees came not only from specialty stores like the organic chain Whole Foods, but also traditional supermarkets like Cub Foods, Slama said.

"There's a huge market here, and all they have to do is deliver, although granted it's not an easy transition," Slama said.

Moore said if it were not for their two teen-age sons, the couple would have a difficult time running the 105-acre farm, where they raise sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, turkeys, chickens and geese, not to mention, vegetables.

"It's a lot of work, but farming has been fun for Jim and I," she said. "And we're not going to go out and gobble up all our neighbors' acreage to make a living." As for Reese, he sees potential income growth for farmers who launch "agroentertainment" or "agritourism" ventures.

"These are farmers who sell more than just the produce, but an experience, where there are hayrides, visitors can feed bunnies, and the trip to the farm is a family outing," he said.

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