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Illinois Country Living

Fresh off the farm
Buying local is healthier for you and is good for our planet

By Catrina McCulley Wagner

Jacqueline Hannah

Jacqueline Hannah, General Manager of Common Ground Food Cooperative in Urbana, encourages consumers to buy local to improve nutrition, the environment and community.

Ricci Jackson

Ricci Jackson, a customer at Common Ground Food Cooperative in Urbana, picks out a variety of locally grown vegetables.

Remember when you were a kid – going out into your grandparents’ or parents’ garden and picking a fresh, ripe, red tomato, not bothering to wash it, just taking a big bite out of it, the juices exploding with flavor in your mouth and running down your chin? You didn’t think about where it came from because you already knew. You didn’t worry about what chemicals it had endured because you already knew. You weren’t concerned about the impact that tomato had on the environment because you knew there was very little. You just savored the freshness and flavor of that magnificent moment.

Fruits and vegetables are plentiful year-round at your local grocery store. And we often don’t question where this produce comes from or how it was grown. Have you ever wondered why the tomatoes you purchase at the grocery store just don’t quite have the flavor of the garden tomatoes you remember?

“Industrial agriculture focuses on a certain variety of tomato because it’s the right size, the right shape, it processes well, ships well, and has long shelf life,” says Deanna Glosser, President of Slow Food Springfield, a not-for-profit group that supports local food producers.

“It doesn’t matter to them if it doesn’t taste good or that it doesn’t have the nutritional value other varieties have. It’s all about, ‘How do we pick it, how do we ship it and does it last on the shelf?’ Illinois has wonderful local farmers who are raising heirloom tomatoes, several different varieties, that when you taste them, you would never believe you’re eating a tomato because you will have never tasted anything like it at the grocery store,” says Glosser.

“Local food retains its vitamins and tastes better. It isn’t produced for that long shelf life. It’s produced for flavor and health benefits. It’s meant to go straight to the public and be consumed,” says Jacqueline Hannah, General Manager of Common Ground Food Cooperative in Urbana, a cooperatively-owned grocery store that promotes local and organic food production.

“Locally, we’re growing more vegetable varieties and growing them in ways that are nourishing the land. That, in turn, makes the food more nutritious and flavorful,” says Hannah.

Many believe today’s industrial farming techniques are not sustainable, meaning they don’t preserve the land from soil erosion and pollution for future generations’ use. “We’re losing top soil at an alarming rate,” Hannah says. “We’re losing about 1 percent of our top soil every year worldwide. Top soil is a very rare thing, actually. It covers only a very small amount of the planet. And it’s usually only several feet deep. So, when we’re losing 1 percent, that’s very fast.”

The good news is we now have an alternative. A growing number of local farmers are choosing to work with nature, rather than against it. These farmers use sustainable or organic practices that build up the soil, reduce runoff, create habitats for wildlife, treat livestock humanely and produce safe, wholesome food.

“Local farmers live on their land and they care about that land. That land is going to pay their bills and take care of their families. They want to pass that land on to their children and they want to know the soil is getting healthier, stronger and better. They want to make sure we’re building soil, not destroying it,” says Hannah.

But the most environmentally sound farming practices in the world don’t mean a thing if they don’t provide a good income for the farmer. Farmers using sustainable methods cannot prosper without the help of urban and rural consumers. As these farmers explore creative new ways to grow and market their products, consumers can support them by purchasing their products.

“What happens when, because of lack of support, we no longer have food being produced in our communities, especially in central Illinois? This is our hard-core identity. We’re the breadbasket of America and yet we’re not eating enough of the food that’s grown here,” Hannah says.

“More than 90 percent of Illinois’ food comes from outside the state,” says Lisa Bralts, city of Urbana farmers Market Director. “That’s an incredible number, considering we’re sitting on some of the best soil in the world for farming, but most of that soil is being used by corporate agribusiness to grow corn and soybeans. Buying food in season from local sources helps lighten the overall carbon footprint of what we eat.”

“It’s so easy to make a connection to your local farmers. Take the opportunity to ask questions about the food. Where else would you get that opportunity?” asks Glosser.

“Having that relationship with the grower, being able to ask if the produce was sprayed, if other inputs were used – that’s important. Some people don’t want to ingest pesticides or herbicides in their food, and buying locally can help them make better-informed decisions about what they eat,” Bralts says.

By seeking out local food opportunities, you can build a connection to the farmers who are the backbone of this economy and have been for generations. “We are finding in local small farms that we are losing farmers at an exponential rate. On average the American farmer is in his or her 60s. For a while we didn’t have young people going into farming because they felt there weren’t enough opportunities. The local food movement is changing that. Now, we’re seeing lots and lots of young people wanting to go into farming again because they see that they will be able to interact with their local consumers at the farmers market and their local food co-op,” says Hannah.

The bottom line is, if we support local farms, they will stay. “Big supermarket chains are even now showing interest in working with local farmers again. This movement is going to revitalize farming as part of our culture in America. We just have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we care about that?’ because if we care about that, we need to invest in it,” Hannah says.

“Local produce can be found in many venues; backyard gardens, roadside stands and from the farm itself. But probably the biggest and easiest location is from your local farmers market,” Glosser says. What better way for local farmers to gather together in one place and showcase the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor and for the local consumer to conveniently reap the benefits in one central location?

Farmers markets are good for communities because they enrich local farmers in ways that are essential to guarantee small family farms will survive. Environmentally, they preserve farmland and reduce the amount of fossil fuels being burned. Nutritionally, they bring healthy produce to consumers who want to feed their family fresh, non-processed foods. Aesthetically, they’re colorful and pleasing to the senses. Socially, they liven the community and renew downtown areas. Economically, they generate new local and regional business. Summed up, they create community.

When farmers markets were first introduced, they were very traditional, offering fruits and vegetables only. But today’s farmers markets offer the buyer more than just fresh produce. “You can find a variety of other local items, including meats, wines, cheeses, flowers, herbs, baked goods, and handcrafted items,” says Bralts.

“Public markets have been around for a millennia, and people still enjoy buying fresh food and handmade goods in a convivial, social environment,” Bralts says.

While a farmers market cannot provide every single item a person needs to feed themselves and their families, it’s a wonderful place for shoppers to procure a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables during the season while, at the same time, supporting local farmers, keeping money in the local economy and enjoying the freshness that can only be found when produce is fresh-picked and in season. “We encourage everyone to consider their local farmers markets first when they make their weekly grocery lists,” says Bralts.

In the local market, you, as a consumer, have the opportunity to communicate with your local farmers and to encourage them to grow your favorite foods in an environmentally friendly method. You have the power to help sustain the small, local farm. Supporting your local farms is a big step in building a strong and healthy community.

For more information about local food, or about farmers markets, visit:

  • – Find out more about Common Ground Food Co-op and look for its “Co-op Recipes” section.
  • – a national site where you can find local farmers markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area.
  • – this site also has a zip code search and even recipes and cookbook reviews under its sustainable kitchen section.
  • - Farmer’s Market Online provides “booth space” for growers, producers and artisans selling direct to the consumer. Find a list of Illinois farmers markets here.
  • - The Illinois Farm Direct Farmer to Consumer Directory helps you find fresh, locally grown food by connecting you directly with Illinois farmers. It is managed by the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
  • – University of Illinois’ Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program’s current focus is to help farmers, students and society at large understand the opportunities for additional economic and ecosystem health with both sustainable and organic approaches.

Top 10 reasons to buy local
  1. Locally grown food tastes and looks better. Food that is imported from far away is older and has traveled on trucks or planes and sat in warehouses before it gets to you.
  2. Local food is better for you. The shorter the time between the farm and your table, the less likely it is that nutrients will be lost from fresh food.
  3. Local food preserves genetic diversity. Smaller local farms often grow many different varieties to provide a long harvest season, an array of colors and the best flavors.
  4. Local food is safe. Local farmers aren’t anonymous and they take their responsibility to the consumer seriously.
  5. Local food supports local families. Local farmers who sell direct to consumers cut out the middleman and get full retail price for their food - which helps farm families stay on the land.
  6. Local food builds community. When you buy direct from a farmer, you’re engaging in a time-honored connection between consumer and grower.
  7. Local food preserves open space. When farmers get paid more for their products by marketing locally they’re less likely to sell farmland for development.
  8. Local food keeps taxes down. According to several studies, farms contribute more in taxes than they require in services, whereas most development contributes less in taxes than the cost of required services.
  9. Local food benefits the environment and wildlife. Well-managed farms conserve fertile soil and clean water in our communities.
  10. Local food is an investment in the future. By supporting local farmers today, you are helping to ensure that there will be farms in your community tomorrow.

© 2016 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
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