More people are demanding food grown closer to home, but initial research from the University of Illinois Urbana-
Champaign shows small farms are having a hard time keeping up. The research shows there are limited venues for farmers to sell their crops, and a shortage of small and family owned farms. Because of market constraints many start-up farms fizzle out quickly.
Tim Lindsey is in charge of sustainable business programs at the University of Illinois. He says the food industry is set up to benefit giant corporations, or tiny farms which sell exclusively at farmer’s markets. He says there is little room for a mid-size farm, the kind that would help get more local food to consumers, to flourish.
“We really have a market failure condition here and it won’t correct itself in any reasonable amount of time unless the state gets involved. And that’s really the only reason for the state to get involved,” Lindsey says. “So we’re trying some very limited, strategic investments in breaking up the log jams that are preventing this sector from moving forward.”
Lindsey’s research is now being used by the state-sanctioned Illinois Local Food, Farms and Jobs Council (ILFFJ) made up of local food advocates and regulators. The council is tasked with putting in place a statewide local food network. Currently less than one percent of food grown in Illinois is eaten by residents. Within the next ten years the council’s new network is supposed to boost that to twenty percent.
Johari Cole owns a mid-size farm with her husband. She can often be found out in the fields of her farm in Kankakee county.
“We do a lot of different greens and heirloom tomatoes and I always say we like to grow whatever we like to eat,” Cole says.
When she’s not picking veggies Cole is a director for the ILFFJ. Cole points out barriers like limited access to investors. She says while some grants are available, they’re often not enough to sustain farmers past start-up.
“A lot of farmers die off because they realize the infrastructure is not set up for them,” Cole says. “We are an export state.”
Cole also says there are limited ways to get food from a mid-size farm to a store.