FARMER CITY – Laura Enger has lived in Farmer City for most of her life.
When the only grocery store in town closed over seven years ago, Enger said the community lost easy access to fresh food and produce.
“Once a town loses its grocery store, the heart of it sort of dies,” Enger said.
Enger spearheaded the movement to open a cooperative grocery store in Farmer City this year. Dozens of residents, both producers and consumers, have come to the steering committee’s community meetings and voiced their support for the project.
Residents would own the store themselves, while local producers would sell their products directly to consumers, Enger said.
“I love going to farmers markets in the summer. But why can’t we do that all year? Especially right here, with there being so many producers of all kinds of things,” Enger said.
Steering committee members have already had conversations with local producers of products like beef, bison, eggs and vegetables. There were 504 farms in De Witt County in 2017, which account for one percent of Illinois’ agriculture sales, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Sean Park, who is assisting with the project through his role at Western Illinois University, says that he’s impressed by Farmer City’s support for the project.
Park has helped many small towns open food cooperatives with local producers throughout the Midwest. In many other towns, community support typically comes from consumers. But in Farmer City, he said both groups are working together.
If the cooperate is community-owned, Park said there’s a greater chance it will survive.
“A lot of people have skin in the game,” Park said. “So it’s not like somebody just opens a business. It’s their business.”
Small towns in the Midwest are often described as ‘food deserts.’ But in the communities he works in, they often have more of a ‘food swamp,’ Park said. That means that they have food from large gas stations or small chain stores, but they’re lacking fresh food and produce.
Farmer City’s steering committee is still early in the process and is now working on securing a location, Enger said.
Farrah Anderson is a journalist and student at the University of Illinois. Follow her on Twitter @farrahsoa.