Making the Case for Local Food Systems as Community and Economic Development: Lessons from Central Illinois Local Food Projects

Leslie Cooperband, University of Illinois
Sarah Hultine, University of Missouri Extension

The Context of the Project

  • Between 1997 and 2002, the number of farms in Illinois decreased by 8 percent, from approximately 79,000 in 1997 to approximately 73,000 in 2002. The average farm size in 2002 had increased by 7% from 1997, from 350 acres to 374 acres (U.S. Census of Agriculture, 2002). A major consequence of declining farm numbers is the loss of economic vitality in the small cities and towns that historically serviced the agricultural economy. Along with these trends, consumers in rural communities are increasingly disconnected from farming and food production.
  • As issues such as food safety, health and nutrition, and environmental concerns continue to confront our agriculture and food systems, local food systems are emerging as an opportunity for rural communities across the nation to deal with these problems.
  • What is a local food system? A local food system is the production, processing, consumption and disposal of food within a defined geographic region. Many locally-based food systems are defined by the distance producers are willing to travel to sell their products directly to consumers or retail food buyers. Examples of local food system venues include farmers’ markets, roadside farm stands, community-supported agriculture, and institutions buying directly from farmers, among others.

What Makes Local Food System Projects Work? The University Connection

  • While there is growing interest in building local food systems as a way to assure food safety and improve health and nutrition, the focus has been on producing locally grown products for large urban markets. Our project explores and measures the community and economic impacts of local food systems in rural communities in Central Illinois. The long-term objective of our project is to create economically viable local food systems in rural Illinois. Our working hypothesis is that developing local food systems is an effective strategy for community and economic development.

Research Methods:

  • Producers
    • Mail surveys to direct market farmers in 13 county region (Fall 2004)
  • Institutional/Commercial Food Buyers
    • Mail surveys to hospitals, nursing homes, schools, independently owned restaurants and grocery stores in 13 county region (Fall 2004)
  • Household Consumers
    • Random sample mail survey of households in 22 county region, over sampled in 6 farmers’ market communities and Fairbury (February 2006)
  • Local Food Venues
    • Central Illinois Farmers’ Markets
      • Intercept surveys of consumers (late summer 2005 and 2006)
      • Interviews with market managers (summer 2005)
      • Focus group with farmers’ market vendors and managers (February 2006)
    • Fairbury, Illinois
      • Intercept surveys of consumers in Dave’s Supermarket (late summer 2005)
      • Interviews with key stakeholders in the Fairbury project, including business owners and producers (summer 2005, and ongoing) and participant observation at producer meetings, special events at the grocery store and farms
  • Information from this research has been used to develop workshops and educational materials for communities interested in building local food system projects, including two Professional Development Opportunity workshops (held in February 2008) and a resource guide for community leaders describing their role in strengthening local food systems (“Beyond the Farmers’ Market: Planning for Local Food Systems in Central Illinois”).

Lessons from Local Food Systems in Central Illinois

Key research questions:

  • What are the economic impacts of relationships between farmers and food buyers within the communities? Who benefits from these relationships, and how?
  • Why do consumers buy local products from farmers’ markets, stores, and other local markets, and if they don’t, what might convince them to begin buying locally?
  • How can community leaders support these local food projects?
  • What are important lessons that other producers, food buyers and communities could learn from these Central Illinois case studies?

Summary of Results

Direct-market producers

  • 68% have an on-farm stand, 41% sell at farmers’ markets, and 48% have other direct sales to customers. Only 14% sell to restaurants, 22% to grocery stores, and none to institutions. Those three markets are where farmers said they would most like to expand product sales.
  • 36% of direct market producers surveyed also raised products for conventional commodity markets (corn, soybeans, etc.). Two-thirds of those farmers used less than half their acreage for direct-market products, yet made more than 50% of their total gross farm sales from those products.

Institutional/commercial food buyers

  • Only 39% of buyers surveyed had purchased locally grown food products in between 2003-2004, with most purchasing fresh vegetables in season.
  • Concerns about USDA certification and insurance were the most commonly mentioned barriers to buying local. Convenience and consistent quality and quantity were also important issues for food buyers concerned about buying locally grown food.

Central Illinois Consumers

  • 35% of consumers are unaware that there are opportunities to purchase locally grown food in their communities.
  • Households that purchase locally grown foods were more likely to have a vegetable garden (43% of local food purchases, versus 32% of non-buyers, significant at .05 level).
  • 43% of consumers said food produced “within 50-80 miles from home” was the best description of local food. 25% said “within 5 miles from home,” and 24% said, “grown in Illinois.”
  • For consumers who purchase local food, “quality of product” and “flavor and taste” were the most influential reasons, followed by “to support local farmers.” Price, weekend hours, and variety of products were the top three factors that would influence shopping at local food venues.

Central Illinois Farmers’ Markets

  • Results from surveys of consumers at six farmers’ markets found that 65% of respondents agreed developing relationships with farmers was an important reason for shopping at a market. There is recognition of the importance of the social aspects of farmers’ markets; even respondents who did not purchase locally grown food agreed that farmers’ markets provide a place for community members to socialize. Shoppers at farmers’ markets are unsure if their community leaders are supportive of the farmers’ market, even at markets that are sponsored by city agencies.
  • Rural consumers are more likely to purchase locally grown food from a variety of different venues including directly from farmers, roadside farm stand, or other farmers’ markets, compared to urban consumers (see chart below). This poses a challenge for rural farmers’ markets, since shopping at more local food venues means that rural consumers spend less of their money on produce at one specific farmers’ market. Rural communities will need to consider which local food venues will be most successful in their communities.

Fairbury, Illinois: Case Study of Farmer-Grocery Store Collaboration

In 2004, a group of direct-market farmers collaborated with their local independently-owned grocery store to create an “indoor farmers’ market” inside the store. The farmers are responsible for stocking products, while the store provides shelf space, advertising and barcodes for the products. The store receives 20% of the local food sales, while the farmers receive the remaining 80% of sales. The number of farmers participating in this project grew from three to over 16 in only three years and their sales more than doubled each year in the first three years of the project. Presently, the farmers sell their products as an LLC called ‘Stewards of the Land.’ This formalized business structure allows the farmers to market and sell their products as a single business entity. The farmer LLC facilitates the relationship between the supermarket and the farmers and expands sales opportunities for the farmers beyond Dave’s Supermarket. Local Food Sales in Dave’s Supermarket
Year–Participating Farmers–Total Sales

* According to one of the lead farmers in the project, the decline in total sales in 2007 was a result of several factors including shifting sales locations within Dave’s Supermarket over the season (every time they were moved, sales dropped), inconsistent farmer participation and increased farmer sales to Chicago area restaurants. Despite the drop in sales at Dave’s, the LLC sales have continued to rise each year.

Based on the findings of the Fairbury Case Study and the Consumer, Producer and Food Buyer survey results, we developed the following indicators of success in building local food systems.

Key Elements for Building Successful Local Food Systems

Entrepreneurial Farmers: It is important for emerging local food markets in rural communities to recruit farmers who are energetic, enthusiastic, and willing to contribute their creativity and expertise to the development of local food markets.

Independent Retail Outlet: Local decision-making by business owners who are community members allows owners to experiment with new opportunities for buying and selling locally grown food and allows for better communication between business owners and producers.

Communication: Developing formalized, open communication channels between all stakeholders in a local food project – from producers, business owners, and consumers to local officials – can create stronger stakeholder relationships while clearly articulating the goals for the project.

Long Time Horizon to Achieve Success: Promoting a long-term vision for the project and celebrating small successes allow projects to adjust to challenges and grow over time.

Leadership: Energetic, creative leaders who are willing to collaborate and share responsibility for decision-making provide projects with a strong sense of direction, stability, and shared commitment.

Community Cohesiveness and Pride: Communities that promote the positive aspects of their community and appreciate their community’s uniqueness may be more willing to support local businesses, particularly local food businesses.

Supportive Local Officials: Local leaders who see the potential of local food systems as a strategy for community and economic development can provide support through policy, business incentives, and infrastructure needs.

Invested Consumers: Consumers who are supportive of their local business districts are vital to the success of local food markets. Understanding their shopping behaviors can help producers promote products that address consumers’ specific food preferences.

Location: An attractive and competitive location for local food projects – from farmers’ markets to retail businesses – is key to attracting consumers. Central business districts may not always be the best location for local food markets.

Project Work Products

We conducted two workshops for Extension Educators and community leaders interested in building local food systems in February 2008. We had over 90 participants attend representing the University of Illinois Extension, non-profit organizations and farmers. We presented information from our research findings as well as case examples from communities around Illinois who have begun to develop local food system initiatives.

We completed the resource guide for community leaders entitled “Beyond the Farmers’ Market: Planning for Local Food Systems in Illinois.” It was published in April 2008 and has been distributed to various Extension offices and interested parties upon request.

We conducted our third Central Illinois Farm Beginnings course (October 2007-August 2008) and we had several people from the Dudley Smith region take the course (Taylorville resident, two to three people from the Decatur area).

We continue to develop web-based resource materials from our research as well as the local foods workshops that are available on the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture website (ASAP):

We published two peer-reviewed articles in two well-respected journals: Journal of the Community Development Society and Southern Rural Sociology Journal:

Linking Small Farms to Rural Communities with Local Food: A Case Study of the Local Food Project in Fairbury, Illinois.
S.A. Hultine, L.R. Cooperband, M.P. Curry and S. Gasteyer. Journal of the Community Development Society, Vol. 38, No. 3, Fall 2007

Producer sections, town squares and farm stands: Comparing local food systems in community context. S. Gasteyer, S.A. Hultine, L.R. Cooperband and M.P. Curry. Southern Rural Sociology Journal. 23(1), 2008

For more information, contact:

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Laboratory for Community & Economic Development

Leslie Cooperband, Ph.D.
Extension Specialist, Sustainable Agriculture and Community Development
Department of Human and Community Development
222 Bevier Hall, 905 S. Goodwin Ave
Urbana, IL 61801

Project Resources