New jobs lie with fruits and vegetables

Staff Writer
Aledo Times Record

The State of Illinois could gain more than 5400 jobs and over $988 million in retail sales through increased production and marketing of 28 types of fruits and vegetables for local consumption according to a major study of the economic potential of increased fruit and vegetable production in the upper Midwest.

The same analysis shows that if local fruit and vegetable production were focused on the state’s nearby major metro areas, including St. Louis, the potential gain could be approximately 4,100 jobs and over $783 million in retail sales.

The study, done by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University reveals that meeting our entire statewide need for fruits and vegetables would require only about 69,000 acres of land, or just 0.3 percent of the state’s 23.7 million acres of cropland. Just under 50,000 acres would be needed for the urban center option.

The new findings were announced during a mid-day event at the Illinois State Library in Springfield as part of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance Local Food Day activities.

“Here in Illinois we understand the importance of farming and are proud of our rich agricultural history,” said Governor Pat Quinn. “Markets that make fresh Illinois-grown produce available to families in every corner of our state help build the farms and local businesses that are so vital to the health of our economy.”

“There would be nothing but winners in a statewide effort to greatly expand production of food for local consumption,” said Jim Braun, Coordinator of the Illinois Local Food, Farms, and Jobs Council. The Council was created by legislation signed by Governor Quinn last summer to encourage local food production, infrastructure development, and purchasing of local products.  “Farmers will enjoy larger incomes derived from expanded opportunity and new businesses will be needed to process, distribute, and market locally grown food. Consumers will enjoy the flavor, health benefits, and increased homeland security generated by the simple act of purchasing products that are local.”

The Leopold Center data on Illinois was one part of a larger analysis of the economic potential for expanded fruit and vegetable production in a six-state region of the upper Midwest. Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all showed economic and job potential similar to Illinois. The lead sponsor in Illinois was Fresh Taste, a collaboration of area funders encouraging diverse local agriculture and healthy eating in the Chicago region.

“We know that people want more, fresh, local food—consumer demand is there,” said Karen Lehman of Fresh Taste. “What we are seeing now is important research that reveals the significant benefit that can come through modest changes in the way food is produced and sold in Illinois and throughout the Midwest.”

The vast majority of agricultural production in Illinois is devoted to commodity crops. Corn and soybeans grow on approximately 21 million of the state’s 23.7 million acres of cropland.

“Illinois’ rich soils will produce an abundance of whatever is planted on them. Much of the land needed to meet the demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables could come from underutilized corners of farm fields, farmyards, and vacant lots in our rural and urban communities,” said Tom Jennings, Director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “The benefits of adding this local food production to the state’s economy would be enormous.”

The Leopold Center report is the second major study in the last year to reveal the significant increase in jobs and income that Illinois could realize through expanded production of food for local consumption. A 2009 Report by the Illinois Local and Organic Food and Farm Task Force to the Illinois General Assembly stated that of the $48 billion spent by Illinoisans on food each year, only a tiny fraction is spent on food grown in Illinois.  The report presented a strategy for greatly increasing Illinois-grown food that would trigger billions of dollars in economic activity and public health benefit.

The Leopold  Center Study:  Two Scenarios

The study explored two scenarios for the production and marketing of 28 fruits and vegetables on a scale large enough to meet demand in the upper Midwest.  The first looked at the impact of meeting the needs of each state. The second explored the impact of meeting the needs of the major metropolitan areas of each state.

The statewide scenario estimated it would take approximately 69,300 acres, or about 0.3 percent of Illinois’ cropland to satisfy current demand in Illinois for the 28 fruits and vegetables. This would generate an estimated $263.9 million in farm level sales and $988.6 million in retail sales. The scenario would create 2600 farm-level jobs paying $120.53 million in wages. Farmers directly selling 50 percent of that produce would generate an additional 2900 jobs and over $91 million in labor incomes.

The second scenario focused on fruit and vegetable production for major metro areas within and bordering Illinois. This fruit and vegetable production would result in more than $180 million in farm sales, $783 million in total retail sales, and an estimated 1,859 farm-level jobs paying $86.1 million in wages.  Farmers directly selling half of that produce would generate an additional 2,287 jobs.

The Leopold Center study is the first multi-state study in the upper Midwest to examine the potential economic benefits of fruit and vegetable production on a scale that would meet the needs of consumers in each of the six states.