Henry Brockman sees a downturn in sales at the farmers market in Evanston. Jimmy Buckley sees a downturn in Peoria. Lyndon Hartz has seen the downturn. He has pulled out of the Downtown Bloomington Market and focused on Peoria.
These local farmers are confirming what’s been reported as a national trend: while attendance may be going up at metropolitan farmers markets, it’s for the music and margaritas, not the spinach, corn and tomatoes.
Speculation about why sales are declining runs the gamut from busy schedules and more eating out to greater availability of organic produce in grocery stores and more marketing by food corporations.
“This is a multifaceted problem,” said local food advocate Terra Brockman, sister of Henry Brockman. “There is not just one cause.”
She said services that deliver organic meal components for cooking at home use huge amounts of resources from packaging to transportation.
“This produces a huge amount of waste,” she said. “And there is no benefit for the local community. These services benefit a corporation in another state.”
Brockman said the economic boost to the Illinois economy is huge when people increase their consumption of locally-grown food. She cited a 2013 study by Ken Meter that found most Illinois consumers purchase less than 3 percent of their overall food purchases from local sources. If that percent was increased to 15 percent, it would mean $639 million in new income for local farmers.
“The current system takes wealth out of our communities,” Meter asserts. “The best path to economic recovery . . . is having more community-based food solutions.”
Brockman dismissed the idea of time shortages, saying people who have a well-stocked kitchen can learn how to prepare meals quickly.
She is more concerned about marketing.
“Corporations spend millions and billions on advertising,” she said. “People have to evaluate who benefits. Local farmers or corporations in another state? Corporations don’t have our interests at heart.”
She dismissed organic sold at Kroger or Whole Food. Even if it’s labeled “local,” that might mean anyplace from Michigan to Missouri.
It’s important for people to remember if the customers aren’t here for the farmers, the farmers can’t remain here for customers, she said, asserting that hope lies with getting children committed to the taste and freshness of vegetables straight from the farm.
“A lot of our customers who started with us in their 40s are now in their 70s and passing away,” she said. “We need the next generation.”
Dr. Gina Hunter, associate professor at Illinois State University, teaches an interdisciplinary course on food issues.
“Food is terrifically complex, and it’s easy for corporations to market unhealthy food as healthy food,” she said. “A granola bar is essentially a candy bar or a cookie.”
She cautioned that corporate stores consider food local when it is transported hundreds of miles, making it “an ecological problem. You’ve got to know how it’s grown, not just where it’s grown.”
Lyndon Hartz, who farms north of Peoria, said, “We’ve noticed sales are down over the last two to three years. I think people are going to Kroger and Walmart and buying what they call ‘local.’ People have to realize even when food is labeled organic from another country, it’s not the same standard. Sure, we’ve got our diehard customers but we need new customers.”
Sharon Gramm, manager of Peoria RiverFront Market, said she does not track sales from individual farmers but overall attendance at the market is up.
In 2017, about 4,500 people attended the Saturday morning market compared with 3,500 in 2016. She cited live music, cooking and chef demonstrations, coffee, fresh pretzels, alcohol and the experience of the market.
Henry Brockman, who farms in the Eureka area, said, “Every farmer I’ve talked with across the country confirms sales are down, down, down. I’ve heard from farmers on the West and East Coasts, Chicago, Bloomington and Peoria.”
He cautioned that the organic label is not sufficient for assessing food. Evaluations of food must include seasonality, locality and scale of the operation with small scale doing the least environmental damage.
Jimmy Buckley owns Garden Spot and is the fifth generation in his family selling at local markets.
“The trend in sales is down,” he said. “Young people are moving out of the state. We need more customers. I try to market, but we have more vendors and more farmers markets in the area.”