Plan aims to promote local food in McHenry County

Published: Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 2:57 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 8:38 a.m. CDT
Caption
John Spiniolas, of Crystal lake, drives a tractor as Aaron Pittner, of Crystal Lake, and Justino Rodriguez, of Elgin, plant eggplant in a field in Marengo in May 2013. Spiniolas has been farming all his life, following in the steps of his father and grandfather. Northwest Herald file photo

CRYSTAL LAKE – Rich Brook, owner of Brook Farm in Harvard, doesn’t have a production problem. He has a supply problem.

An acre will yield him at least 1,000 dozen pieces of corn, but there isn’t an outlet for him to sell something of that quantity.

“I can go out and grow so much more food than I can sell directly,” he said. “Go out to the Woodstock farmers market and try to sell 1,000 dozen.”

Nationally, there is a growing demand from consumers to purchase locally produced food, and leaders in McHenry County agriculture believe they have a plan in place to deliver more county-grown food to area residents.

In 2011, the Agricultural Conservation Easement and Farmland Protection Commission in McHenry County formed a task force to conduct a county-wide local food assessment, and in October 2013 the report was adopted by the McHenry County Board.

The purpose was simple: How can leaders promote a successful local farm system in McHenry County and better provide residents with healthy, locally-grown food?

The plan, presented Thursday at McHenry County College, gave an analysis of the quantity of farms in the county, the demand for locally-grown food, and recommendations for the county board and farmland advocates on how to make the area a better place to buy, grow and eat local food.

“There are producers here, but I wasn’t really aware that they were necessarily feeding the people here locally,” said Lenore Beyer-Clow, policy director for Openlands, a regional non-profit organization that spearheaded the task force. “There is enough interest in [eating locally]. We really need to grab on to that interest and see how we can move it forward.”

The report found that Illinois consumers spend $48 billion on food annually, but only 4 percent is generated from local food purchases, meaning the majority of food dollars leave the state.

When buying food directly from a farmer, 90 percent of those food dollars go back to the farm, which keeps the revenue in the community, the report found.

And in a survey of nearly 250 county residents, 50 percent of respondents said they do not know where the food they purchase is grown, and two-thirds said they do not know if their grocer offers local food. When asked how well local farms met their food needs, 60 percent said they were unsure, and 31 percent said there was shortage of local food.

The report concluded that there was a growing demand for locally produced food, along with an increasing supply and availability for local food products.

“I think most people do their shopping at Jewel or a big retail outlet,” Beyer-Clow said. “So having [locally grown food] accessible at places people are used to buying it will make a big difference.”

This goes beyond farmers markets, Beyer-Clow added. The report calls for promoting local food at McHenry County restaurants and advocating for more local food at schools and hospitals. And creating a food hub for area growers to combine their resources would further benefit smaller farms.

“I can’t think of anything that would be more helpful to smaller growers in McHenry County than to be able to cooperate with your fellow growers,” Brook said. “You can put together enough stuff where you can supply hospitals, schools, supermarkets and some of the specialty stores.”

The task force acknowledged that a significant barrier to getting people to eat locally is the cost. It’s often more expensive to shop at the farmers market than at Wal-Mart. But local agricultural leaders are hoping the health benefits, the benefits to the local economy and the sense of community will push the local food movement ahead in McHenry County.

“You feel like part of a community,” Brook said. “You’re helping the farmer. And the farmer is just delighted. He’s gonna bust his rear to provide you the best stuff.”

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