The other day, I saw a photo on social media of a very wet but not quite flooded farm field. The comment was about washing the veggies before heading to the farmers' market the following day. Picking the lettuce and spinach didn't look like it would be much fun.
Farmers have always had to contend with the weather. Will there be too much rain or not enough rain? It's always a bit of a gamble.
Our local farmer friends would be happy if the weather was the only challenge they faced year after year. There's a long list of concerns farmers of all sizes have to contend with - aside from the weather.
Understanding the small family farm
Small family farms make up 88% of all American farms, with an average size of about 230 acres. They account for 50% of all U.S. farmland and 20% of overall farm production. Specialty crops refer to crops for human consumption, such as fruits, nuts, vegetables, and flowers.
Small farms operate very differently from those that dwarf them in size. They don't have the same operational efficiencies as larger farms or heavy equipment like combines. However, their size allows them to pivot better than larger farms. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), during the covid 19 pandemic, small family farms saw increased sales at farmers' markets and direct to restaurants. CSA sales increased by almost 80%. Due to the steep decline in sales through other channels, these increases were necessary.
The growth of farmers' markets in Chicagoland over the last decade or so indicates that consumers are interested in who produces their food and where they do it. Pick any day of the week, and chances are, you'll find a market to purchase fresh farm products that include fruit, vegetables, eggs, meats, honey, flowers, and value-added options like baked and canned goods.
A Central Illinois Experiment
Not every region has demand for farmers' markets and farm-to-table restaurants. In 2019, Mt. Pulaski, Illinois, was awarded a Local Food, Local Places grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The grant allowed the community to develop a community garden and a cooperative grocery store. A food hub known as the FarmFED Co-op is the final step.
The Farm-FED Co-op is a processing facility that will buy fresh produce from local growers, process and freeze it, and sell it to larger local buyers such as schools and hospitals. The facility would contain a produce processing line, ample cold storage, and a licensed commercial kitchen. (Sound familiar?)
Farmers in Central Illinois who grow specialty crops lack the infrastructure needed to reach more people in their communities. Farms cannot expand, and the community has limited options to buy locally-grown food. An explicit goal of the co-op is to help local growers sell their vegetables to schools, hospitals, and other large buyers consistently and profitably.
The solution is to blanch, flash freeze, and package harvested vegetables at the peak of freshness. The vegetables can be sold throughout the year. Additionally, they will offer a commercial kitchen, cold storage, and custom fresh food processing.
The end result will be a local food system that has the potential to boost the local economy and impact the way people eat in Central Illinois. Additional benefits will be the sustainability of the farms involved, keeping the land in local families, and preventing its purchase by agri-business farms.
The importance of family farms has increased in recent years as more of us want high-quality fresh produce in the summer. We hope the family farmers in Central Illinois have found a solution to keeping the family farms alive.