Here's something to chew on: In 2010, Illinois' 76,000 farmers generated $16 billion in economic output, securing the state's position as one of the most productive growing regions in the world.
What if we could do even more?
Traditionally, Illinois has shipped much of what it grows out of the state and imported most of the food consumers buy at the grocery store. But in recent years, new opportunities have opened up to complement and build upon our existing assets by developing a strong local food economy.
The economic development potential of this trend is enormous. According to a recent study, if the state of Illinois met its demand for fresh produce with production from Illinois farms, farm sales would increase by $264 million and 2,600 jobs would be created. Add products like meat, milk and grains to the list and the impact would be even greater.
A strong local food economy is built on relationships between farmers and consumers. Sometimes it's a direct connection, like those forged at farmers markets. Other times it's indirect: Consumers find local products at the grocery store, in restaurants, in their school or hospital or workplace cafeterias. Unfortunately, building these indirect connections is more difficult than it might seem.
Take Ken Ropp, a central Illinois dairyman whose family started Ropp Jersey Cheese in 2006. He now sells 60 varieties of cheese at a farm store, farmers markets, an ever-growing list of grocery stores and even local schools. But he faces a major challenge: Ken spends the majority of his time distributing cheese to 140 locations within 100-mile radius of the dairy, which limits his ability to scale up. Other Illinois producers are challenged by a lack of processing, packing or storage space to get their products ready to sell.
Whether it's preparing local food for sale or distributing it to buyers, Illinois has a serious deficit when it comes to local food infrastructure.
Enter an innovative business concept called a food hub. Food hubs serve as central collection points for products from many small and midsized farms; they provide space and equipment for storage and they often do processing and packing. With the volume of products they collect from the many local farms they work with, food hubs can sell to large buyers like regional grocery chains. Many hubs even have a distribution arm that delivers the products.
Food hubs help small and midsized farms and ranches reach markets they could never access on their own. Nationwide, nearly 200 food hubs are connecting farms with these new opportunities, putting people to work and expanding consumer access to healthy, local food in the process.
Food hubs are one piece of a broader economic development strategy that taps into the booming consumer demand for local food in Illinois. That's why earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the State of Illinois announced a collaborative effort to help jumpstart food hubs, working closely with partners such as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Illinois Farm Bureau.
We developed a streamlined funding application checklist to help producers and businesses navigate state and federal grants and loans to support food hubs. We are conducting technical workshops and hosting events to connect farmers and buyers. As we travel through the state to share these resources, one thing is clear: with the right infrastructure, we can bridge the gap between Illinois farmers and consumers, between our state's rural communities and urban centers. If we do it right, everyone benefits.
In late April, nearly 200 food hub developers from across the country met in Chicago to share strategies and best practices. It was fitting that they chose Illinois to hold their event. We're a state with enormous agricultural resources -- and a great pool of consumers. If we make the connections, we'll be serving up both better dinners and a stronger economy.
This post was co-authored by Sheila Simon, Illinois lieutenant governor, and Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture
Follow Sheila Simon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SheilaSimonIL