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Illinois farmers making more with less by selling direct

Agriculture.com Staff 01/05/2007 @ 1:14pm

URBANA - According to a recent University of Illinois study, some Illinois farmers have found a way to make more income from farming fewer acres. The secret? A combination of producing a high value product and selling directly to the customer.

The study looked at the state of the local food system in Central Illinois. Local food system is defined as the "production, processing distribution, marketing and consumption of food within a 50 to 80 mile area."

One of the first steps in the study was to conduct a survey of producers within a 13 county region in Central Illinois to find out what they were selling, to whom and where (farmers' markets, roadside stands), what their challenges are, and what U of I Extension can do to help them.

"What we learned was that a large percentage of farmers were making more money selling their products directly to consumers and using fewer acres to do it," said Sarah Hultine, a graduate student in Urban and Regional Planning and research assistant in the Laboratory for Community and Economic Development working with Leslie Cooperband, Pat Curry and Anne Heinze Silvis on the project. "About 40 percent of the farmers who responded to the survey were also raising livestock, corn or soybeans as commodities, but two-thirds of those farmers were earning more from their direct-market crops or products. They saved on transportation costs by selling at roadside stands or nearby farmers' markets; and by selling directly to consumers, they eliminated the middle man and were able to keep more of the profit," said Hultine.

In addition to surveying direct market farmers, the study also examined six farmers' markets within the same 13-county region -- looking at variables such as location, number of vendors/customers, and products sold as well as community and economic impacts.

Bloomington and Urbana both have farmers' markets that are well-established and attract about 3,000 customers on Saturdays during their peak season in July. They each have 40 to 50 food and crafts vendors. "The success of these big markets was in part related to the fact that they have a critical mass of shoppers and a critical mass of vendors -- making it more worthwhile to make the trip there on a Saturday morning," said Hultine.

"Metamora is our anomaly," said Hultine. "It's a small market with only four or five food vendors and crafts, but it attracts about 300 people per Saturday. The town works hard to make it a fun event, connecting with other businesses on the square so people can shop at the farmers' market, then go for a cup of coffee or tour the courthouse which is on the national historic register."

Hultine says that the Metamora farmers' market is an anomaly because it's a rural market but is successfully drawing customers from the larger neighboring communities such as Peoria, which is 17 miles away. The other rural farmers' markets studied each averaged about 100 shoppers per Saturday. "The farmers who sell at these markets tend to be more 'hobby' or backyard gardener type food vendors and going to the market for them is more of a social occasion than an opportunity to make money," said Hultine.

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