California, Florida, Texas, Washington … Illinois?

Illinois could net millions from higher production

Andy Nelson
Markets Editor

The Prairie State may be a few hundred miles north or east of what most would consider prime U.S. fruit-and-vegetable-growing country.

This is the era of locally grown.

The rules have changed, and Illinois has no hesitation about jumping on the bandwagon and (in theory, at least) giving those better-known produce states a run for their money.

Using just a fraction of the state’s agricultural land, Illinois growers could create 5,400 jobs and generate close to $1 billion in retail sales growing fruits and vegetables.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Growing 28 fruits and vegetables on 69,000 acres of Illinois farmland — just 0.3% of the state’s 23.7 million farm acres — could produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet all of the state’s in-season demand, according to the report.

That could generate $988 million in retail sales. If that Illinois production was expanded to include meeting demand in St. Louis and other metropolitan areas close to Illinois, another $783 million could be generated.

About 95% of the $48 billion Illinois residents spend on food each year comes from outside Illinois, said Jim Braun, coordinator of the Illinois Local Food, Farms and Jobs Council, which was created, in an effort to boost locally grown production, in 2009 by legislation signed by Gov. Pat Quinn.

Studies like the one published by Iowa State point the way toward reducing that reliance on in-season fresh fruits and vegetables from other states and countries, Braun said.

“The goal is to unite Illinois eaters with Illinois farmers,” he said. “The support in Illinois for this is incredible. If communities across the state can see the benefits of this, I’d say the odds of getting it done are pretty good.”

Those benefits go far beyond keeping Illinois dollars in Illinois, boosting employment and other economic benefits, Braun said.

Among other reasons, he cited reducing childhood obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other health problems, and maintaining an adequate food supply in the event of a natural or man-made disaster.

As far as which produce commodities could benefit most, Braun said short of tropicals and a few others, take your pick.

“Obviously we can’t grow oranges and bananas, but we can grow every food product that will survive in a temperate climate,” he said.

“Illinois soils have the capability and Illinois farmers have the expertise to grow it.”

With so many Illinoisans — from the governor down — on board, it should be an interesting test case in just how far local can go.

E-mail anelson@thepacker.com

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