So… the nature of the work that I do, which is primarily managing a large farmers market in east Central Illinois, requires that I get out into the Illinois countryside and visit some of the farms that sell fruit and vegetables at the market. So each spring and summer I hit the road.
Here’s something I’ve noticed on my travels: Small-scale fruit and vegetable agriculture is just not very visible in Illinois. When you’re on the interstates, you don’t see the smaller farms, which are most often findable when you get off at the next exit, then take the first right, drive 8 miles, then take the left by the graveyard. When the main roads — the interstates and county roads — bisect farmland in Illinois, it’s most often land on large farms, farms with hundreds or even thousands of acres growing primarily corn and beans and maybe some wheat or oats. These large farms are hard to miss — they take up the most acreage and have enormous, exotic-looking machinery working out in the fields and driving on the back roads.
I thought about this as I drove along 57 and 72 and 74. I thought about the small farmers who grow fruits and vegetables for farmers’ markets and other outlets, and I thought about their tractors and planters and greenhouses and farm hands, and I thought about how those things bore no resemblance whatsoever to what I was seeing all around me along the interstates. It really struck me: the most visually apparent agriculture in our area involves food that we don’t eat directly after harvest, though many of us eat animals that eat these foods and products made from these foods. When we think about farms, we usually envision a pastoral farm scene with hills and cows dotting the landscape, but what we see while we travel to Chicago or Springfield or Carbondale?
Like the T-shirt made by a local artist says, “Corn and beans, beans and corn — variety is the spice of life.”
Despite the humor, we all know the commodity crops that are grown here are, without a doubt, a massive, massive part of our state’s current food system and economy. They literally dominate the landscape.
But what about the agricultural activity that lives in Big Ag’s shadow? The parts we don’t see from the interstate?
Let’s talk about local fruit and vegetable production. Just over a year ago, state legislators learned from the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force that, despite Illinois’ reputation as an agricultural state, the vast majority of the food we eat — over 90% — is imported from other states and countries. And it’s not just happening in our state, either; when the Leopold Center For Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University recently looked at the potential for increased fruit and vegetable production in six Midwestern states, including Illinois, they concluded that just under 300,000 cropland acres would be required to provide the partial-year fruit and vegetable needs for all six of those states. That area is the equivalent to the average amount of cropland in one of Iowa’s 99 counties. It stands to reason, then, that we could have the best of both worlds in Illinois — we could enjoy the social, economic, and other benefits from increased smaller-scale fruit and vegetable agriculture as well as the huge yields of production agriculture. I mean, food is a pretty big tent, and everyone eats. Why not eat food that was grown here, since it grows so well? After all, one of our state’s most awesome resources benefits even those of us trying to coax a few things out of the ground — some of the best soil in the world for growing food.
To that end, let’s talk about local, as in really local, food production by microproducers — everyone from folks who have a few tomato plants on their patio to folks who plant huge gardens on vacant lots — the people who try grow whatever food they can wherever they can.
Microproduction can better connect the community with food by fostering closer relationships between growers large and small and eaters, relationships that encourage conversation not just about growing food, but also about food preparation and preservation, arts that are slowly becoming lost. Engaging eaters — especially young ones — in microproduction can encourage a better understanding of the work and the resources it takes to produce food. And creating convivial environments around microproduction that encourage people to get together, to teach and learn new things, and to… get their hands dirty, whether it’s in a yard or in the kitchen, yields far more than just vegetables or meals.
I keep thinking about the immediate impact of what each of us does at home, and in our neighborhoods and towns. I know from experience and seeing it happen again and again that watching someone build a garden or plant a seed or make yogurt or bake bread can get a person thinking, hey — maybe I can do that?
It’s this important work that isn’t visible from those main roads, the interstates. It’s happening in our own backyards.