On Superior Farmlands, Limited Appetite for Local Food

When Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband took jobs as soil scientists at the University of Illinois 13 years ago, they bought a farmhouse outside Champaign-Urbana, and set off on a bike ride. The glacier-smoothed land was flat as paper, so pedaling was a breeze. The corn and soybean fields seemed to stretch into eternity. But something felt off: in a 10-mile ride past dozens of farms, they spotted just one vegetable garden.

“It was kind of shocking, “Jarrell remembered. “All these farms with the best soils in the world and a great climate—and one garden.”

Soon after that eye-opening bicycle ride in 2004, the newcomer couple established Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, the state’s first licensed Grade-A goat dairy and farmstead creamery, featuring a small orchard and a herd of milking goats.

Jarrell and Cooperband are among the more than 200 new, sustainable farmers who have recently established operations on the fertile farmland of Central Illinois, 100 miles and more south of Chicago.

Wes Jarrell. (Photo courtesy Prairie Fruits Farm.)

In the Corn Belt region—otherwise dominated by expansive industrial corn and soy operations—these small farms represent anomalies, producing everything from peppers to chicken using sustainable methods like integrating livestock and crops. Yet despite their commitment to growing food sustainably for their communities, many of these small enterprises find themselves facing a significant challenge: the local community does not embrace their product fully enough to keep them in business, forcing them to make faraway sales in Chicago.

It’s a problem faced by food producers targeting their local markets around the country; at the same time, a number of organizations and strategies are cropping up to build local support for local food.

The Land Connection, a Champaign-based nonprofit that advocates for sustainable farming in Central Illinois, continually struggles to drum up more residents’ interest in homegrown…

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