Connecting farmer to consumer

Every year my husband Perry and I garden at my family’s home in Makanda, a town of less than 500 people in southern Illinois. Our garden is small, but we enjoy it in a big way.

This spring, we intend to plant sweet corn, tomatoes, potatoes and a variety of herbs. We also have the pleasure of deciding where to replant two peach trees that grew at the edge of our compost pile last year.

But a mainstay of our diet is pears, thanks to a pear tree we planted about 20 years ago. This means, at our house, it is all pears all the time! We eat them, freeze them and give them away. This year at Christmas we gave frozen pear sauce to a long list of friends and family.

The pear sauce isn’t worth a lot of money, but it does offer something that’s hard to find — a connection between food and the person growing it. Our state consumes nearly $48 billion of food annually, but less than 5 percent of that food comes from Illinois. It travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to our tables, and those trips account for nearly 20 percent of its price.

As the only statewide elected official from Southern Illinois and the chair of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, I have been working to improve the connection between consumers and the farmers in their community — both personally and as an advocate for farmers’ markets.

One way to accomplish this connection is by improving access to farmers’ markets for low-income residents. These urban, suburban and rural residents often live in “food deserts” with no access to fruits and vegetables, let alone locally grown produce.

I’m working with markets to reach these residents by finding affordable ways to install wireless debit card-style machines to accept food stamp benefits known as LINK. Not only does this introduce a new customer base to the markets, it improves the health of those who eat fresh food.

The promising news is that in the last couple of years more and more Illinois citizens receiving LINK have been able to redeem their benefits at farmers markets across the state. Last year, 49 farmers’ markets and direct-marketing farmers in 20 counties redeemed nearly $70,000 worth of LINK benefits. This is an increase of over 522 percent since 2009!

But we have a lot of room to grow. In Illinois, there are 75,000 farms that cover over 75 percent of the state — including my husband Perry’s family farm in Randolph County. We can make better connections between these growers and the potential buyers here at home, as well as with the important markets in other states and abroad. The Governor’s Rural Affairs Council will be conducting rural listening posts around the state this spring, and we’d appreciate your input as we move ahead.

Mentioning Perry’s family farm reminds me that it is almost time for us to continue one of his family’s traditions out in Makanda. Each spring we plant our potatoes the way his family has for generations.

We cut up the seed potatoes so that each chunk has one eye, and then dip the chunks in ashes before we plant them. I think this adds potassium, but I get the feeling that this tradition dates back farther than scientific data would.

Unlike our pears, we only grow enough potatoes for home consumption. We prefer to dig up the spuds just before it’s time to cook them. Sometimes we have our dinner guests help with the digging. We promise it will be fun, and any help in potato digging is welcome.

Our family traditions may not be replicable outside of our small garden, but the connection we have to the food we grow and share is something that more Illinois citizens should be able to experience.

Making our food system more local and sustainable means better health and greater economic opportunity, but also an opportunity to bring communities closer together.