Federal data shows Illinois farmers sell only about $114 million a year worth of fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries, compared to $10.9 billion in crops like corn and soybeans. But the number of farmers markets in the state has nearly tripled in a decade, and both the state and federal government are kicking in promotional dollars — including up to $435,000 in grants announced this week — to keep the trend going.
Eat your fruits and vegetables.
Federal data shows Illinois farmers sell only about $114 million a year worth of fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries, compared to $10.9 billion in grain crops, primarily corn and soybeans. But the number of farmers markets in the state has nearly tripled in a decade, and both the state and federal government are kicking in promotional dollars — including up to $435,000 in grants announced this week — to keep the trend going.
“There’s just great demand for all types of specialty crops around the state and also a great need for more producers,” Delayne Reeves, a marketing specialist with the Illinois Department of Agriculture, said in an e-mail.
Reeves coordinates federally funded grants of up to $10,000 to promote locally grown foods.
The eat-your-fruits-and-vegetables theme even got a boost this week from federal Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who said buy-local campaigns could help fight the nation’s obesity problem.
A 10-year-old farmers market in downtown Springfield just added four vendor spots to meet demand, said Victoria Clemons, executive director of Downtown Springfield Inc., which coordinates the Wednesday-Saturday event.
State grants help market the event, which is held in the 300 and 400 blocks of East Adams Street.
“It just keeps growing, and they’re putting more (marketing) money into it,” said Clemons.
Clemons said the market now has 40 spots with another 20 vendors on a standby list. She added that the group is looking at the possibility of smaller vendor spaces or using adjoining parking lots on weekends. Overflow vendors also have been referred to a Thursday farmers market at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
“Just about every restaurant downtown buys from the farmers market,” said Clemons.
Competition can be tough in the fresh-produce business, said Rose Mary Garrett of Garrett Hygroponic Tomatoes. The Pike County company has been in business for 30 years and is a regular at the Springfield market.
“We’ve downsized the last couple of years. We moved more to farmers markets when the big groceries were shipping in tomatoes from Canada and Mexico,” said Garrett. She added that her Canadian competition has the advantage of free power generated by excess steam from utility plants.
She also is a regular at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and at farmers markets in Quincy and Jacksonville. Her products also are sold through a farmers market in Peoria and through some smaller grocery chains.
Good Earth Farm owner Mike Butcher obtained federal certification three years ago as an organic producer who uses no chemicals or pesticides on crops, primarily lettuce and tomatoes, grown on his farm west of Jacksonville.
“The biggest thing is they are real strict with the documentation. I have to track everything I bring up here (to the farmers market) back to the seed. You also have to re-certify every year,” said Butcher.
He added that, at age 56, he long ago converted to eating organic foods himself.
“I think I eat better, and I feel better,” said
Supermarket chains have taken note of the trend. Local vendors said they regularly sell to regional companies such as County Market, Schnucks and Shop ’n Save. The Meijer chain just announced it would expand its local produce purchases.
Darn Hot Peppers owner Jerry Jimenez makes a roughly 400-mile roundtrip weekly to sell his specialty peppers and spices at the Springfield farmers market. His farm is near Cobden in southern Illinois.
He said the key to sticking around is start small and go from there.
“We do food shows in the Chicago and Peoria markets … but we’re being cautious. We’re not concerned about getting into larger markets that fast,” said Jimenez.
Tim Landis can be reached at (217) 788-1536 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are about 280 farmers markets in Illinois (not including roadside stands) compared to 97 in 1999, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Still, fruits and vegetables remain a tiny part of the state’s overall farm industry, based on a 2007 farm census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
* Value of Illinois crop sales, including corn and soybeans, totaled nearly $10.9 billion; livestock sales totaled $2.4 billion.
* Sales of melons, vegetables, potatoes and sweet potatoes totaled $103.9 million.
* Sales of fruits, nuts and tree berries totaled $10.2 million.