MOUNT PULASKI – Think about your favorite produce stand at the local farmers market, how fresh and delicious those fruits and vegetables taste. Now imagine if that produce was available at, say, your kids’ school or the local grocery store or hospital.
A new farmer-led cooperative is hoping to make that a reality by building a facility that can prepare locally grown food to be sold in bulk.
Illinois Newsroom’s Agriculture Reporter Dana Cronin spoke to Jeff Hake, a central Illinois farmer who’s helping to spearhead the FarmFED Co-op.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Dana Cronin: Before we talk about the co-op, clearly it’s trying to fill a gaping hole that exists in the Illinois food system. Can you describe what the larger issue is here?
Jeff Hake: Over the past 10 years, there has been a growth in the number of small farms that are growing fresh produce and direct-to-consumer products and things like that in central Illinois, the ones you see at farmers markets, you see showing up more and more at grocery stores and things. The trouble that they have is that there’s a cap on their growth at which it’s harder for them to reach larger markets without making really huge investments. And usually tapping into that kind of investment capital, it’s just not really feasible and it just is out of reach for most of those farmers. So there’s a cap on growth for them. At the same time, there are a lot of buyers in our area who would love to have access to really healthy, nutritious local produce. But because of economies of scale, because of pricing, because of regulatory restrictions, they can not effectively buy produce from local farms. So even though that food is close by, they have to buy food from much farther away and it might be lower quality. Our hope is that the cooperative that we’re proposing and the facility it would operate would help fill that gap.
DC: So what exactly is the FarmFED Cooperative and how exactly will address that problem?
JH: Yeah, the facility that the cooperative would operate is in itself, not a novel idea. What we’re proposing is a facility that could buy fresh produce from local farmers on a quite large scale. We’re talking about many hundreds or thousands of pounds of fresh produce at a time. Get it processed all at once, freeze it and then make it available in larger quantities to institutional buyers in our area or larger retailers like grocery stores in central Illinois. That kind of infrastructure, that kind of processing facility, things like it once existed in central Illinois. But they left a long time ago, decades ago. And now we have a resurgence in our local food economy and our local food system. And it’s time for the need to be met for the kind of processing that we’re trying to create with this facility.
DC: I think a lot of people, upon hearing about this project, might be surprised that this doesn’t already exist, right?
JH: Yeah, yeah. It seems like such an obvious thing. And there have been attempts at this kind of thing in central Illinois before. But more than that, the amount of times you hear about this need existing here, it’s constant, knowing that there’s a need for this. And yet, for a whole variety of reasons having to do with policy and economics for decades, these things have struggled to exist here or have left at some point. And yeah, it might be surprising for people to learn that this is one of the richest agricultural regions in the entire world, and yet we’re not really focused at all on growing fresh food. And that’s something that seems like a huge oversight and a huge opportunity because it’s missing here currently.
(End of conversation)
The co-op is currently looking for investors, but Hake says the facility could be built in the next couple of years. More information about the project can be found here.
Dana is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @DanaHCronin