The study looked at the state of the local food system in
central Illinois. A local food system is defined as the
"production, processing, distribution, marketing and consumption
of food within a 50- to 80-mile area."
One of the first steps in the study was to conduct a survey
of producers within a 13- county region in central Illinois to
find out what they were selling, to whom and where (farmers'
markets, roadside stands), what their challenges are, and what U
of I Extension can do to help them.
"What we learned was that a large percentage of farmers were
making more money selling their products directly to consumers
and using fewer acres to do it," said Sarah Hultine, a graduate
student in urban and regional planning and research assistant in
the Laboratory for Community and Economic Development, working
with Leslie Cooperband, Pat Curry and Anne Heinze Silvis on the
project. "About 40 percent of the farmers who responded to the
survey were also raising livestock, corn or soybeans as
commodities, but two-thirds of those farmers were earning more
from their direct-market crops or products. They saved on
transportation costs by selling at roadside stands or nearby
farmers' markets; and by selling directly to consumers, they
eliminated the middleman and were able to keep more of the
profit," said Hultine.
In addition to surveying direct-market farmers, the study
also examined six farmers' markets within the same 13-county
region -- looking at variables such as location, number of
vendors and customers, and products sold, as well as community
and economic effects.
Bloomington and Urbana both have farmers' markets that are
well-established and attract about 3,000 customers on Saturdays
during the peak season, in July. The two markets each have 40 to
50 food and crafts vendors. "The success of these big markets
was in part related to the fact that they have a critical mass
of shoppers and a critical mass of vendors -- making it more
worthwhile to make the trip there on a Saturday morning," said
"Metamora is our anomaly," said Hultine. "It's a small market
with only four or five food vendors and crafts, but it attracts
about 300 people per Saturday. The town works hard to make it a
fun event, connecting with other businesses on the square so
people can shop at the farmers' market, then go for a cup of
coffee or tour the courthouse, which is on the national historic
Hultine says that the Metamora farmers' market is an anomaly
because it's a rural market but is successfully drawing
customers from the larger neighboring communities, such as
Peoria, which is 17 miles away. The other rural farmers' markets
studied each averaged about 100 shoppers per Saturday. "The
farmers who sell at these markets tend to be more hobby or
backyard gardener type food vendors, and going to the market for
them is more of a social occasion than an opportunity to make
money," said Hultine.
"What we've discovered is that not all rural communities have
what it takes to build and maintain a successful farmers'
market," said Leslie Cooperband, principal investigator for the
U of I project. "Our preliminary findings suggest that farmers'
markets need a critical mass of food vendors who are there
primarily to sell their products. This critical mass of farmers
attracts a critical mass of customers who spread the word about
the great farmers' market in their community. "However, there
are other opportunities for buying and selling locally grown
produce that may be better suited for small, rural communities.
The Fairbury project is a successful market for local foods that
other rural communities can learn from."
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Fairbury, a town with a population of about 4,000, doesn't
have a farmers' market, but it has developed a local food
following in Dave's Supermarket. "In 2004 a group of four
farmers began selling their produce in a mini farmers' market
inside Dave's. Last year seven farmers participated, and this
year there were 10 farmers who participated. This year they have
advertised more heavily and it has been more popular," said
One of the reasons that this mini-market inside the store has
been a good solution for farmers is that Dave's is the only grocery
store in the community. The next closest is 30 miles from Fairbury.
The store sponsors community events and serves as social gathering
place for senior citizens who eat in the cafeteria.
Logistically speaking, Dave's Supermarket provides farmers with
the shelf space, advertising and accounting and, in turn, receives
20 percent from the purchase price. The farmers are responsible for
stocking shelves and pricing products.
"Dave's Supermarket has shown that there are other methods for
building local food systems in rural communities besides farmers'
markets," said Hultine. "There may be other ways that are more
efficient to get produce from the farm to the consumer."
One option to explore is a local representative to coordinate
purchases and deliveries among several farms. "For many farmers
interested in selling directly to small grocery stores or
restaurants, it's a challenge to market their products and develop
critical relationships with those food buyers," said Cooperband.
"Having some level of coordination among small groups of farmers is
yet another strategy to get more locally grown foods into both rural
and urban communities in central Illinois."
In addition to helping farmers find alternative ways to sell
their products, one of the project's larger goals is to persuade
people that local food is fresher, healthier (more varied diet, more
fruits and vegetables, and leaner meats) and keeps money in the
The study also surveyed food buyers from hospitals, grocery
stores, schools and restaurants about some of their barriers to
buying local food. "They responded that it's easier for them to just
buy everything from one central supplier and that sometimes the
quantities they needed weren't available locally," said Hultine.
Rural and urban market shoppers' preferences were also compared.
Rural market shoppers were more likely to attend a farmers' market
strictly to purchase food, whereas urban farmers' market shoppers
attended markets for other reasons, such as socializing. Rural
residents were also more likely to purchase locally grown foods from
other venues, such as roadside stands and you-pick farms, directly
from the farmer.
Among all survey respondents, 65 percent agreed that developing
relationships with farmers was an important reason for shopping at a
market. Even those who didn't shop at the markets recognized the
importance of the social aspects of farmers' markets; the markets
provide a place for community members to socialize.
What's next? After the data are analyzed, materials will be
created to reach economic developers, elected officials, farmers and
businesses to help them consider building local food systems as a
means to community and economic development.
"Local food systems projects are developing," said Hultine.
"We've received calls from other communities with people interested
in selling to grocery stores, and there have been requests from
other local restaurants and groceries to buy local food products."
of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental
Sciences news release]