Guest Commentary: Many benefits to farmers' markets

Guest Commentary: Many benefits to farmers' markets

By LYNN DORAN

Ripe tomatoes, crisp lettuce, blushing peaches, fresh baked bread, locally raised meats, kids laughing and the sun shining. There is no better way to spend a summer Saturday morning than at your local farmers' market. Here in Champaign-Urbana, we're lucky to have so many options from the Urbana markets in and at Lincoln Square year-round to the seasonal markets ranging from downtown Champaign to the Student Sustainable Farm's market on campus to markets in Paxton, Monticello and Homer.

Farmers' markets are great for eating fresh, local food, but they also serve the community in many more ways. The farmers' market provides an educational opportunity. As society becomes more disconnected from the way our food is grown and produced, farmers' markets provide consumers chances to ask questions, connect and build relationships with agriculture.

Farmers' markets are critical for growing local economies. Small business, including farms, account for 64 percent of new job growth in the U.S., according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. The farmers' markets provide a sales opportunity for agricultural entrepreneurs to reach new customers. As the farm or small food business grows, they are more easily able to gauge public interest, earn capital to expand and reach more difficult markets like restaurants and grocers.

Farmers' markets also bring business to the downtown areas where they are hosted. The Wisconsin Farmer's Market Association, in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin, found that the average farmers' market visitor spends between $14 and $22 on purchases at the market, and an additional $11-$21 on goods and services from nearby businesses. Farmers' markets generate between $212,000 and $1.1 million in total economic activity in the community over the course of the season.

2018 is an exciting year for Illinois farmers' markets, thanks to two new state laws. The Local Food Business Opportunities Act (HB2820) standardizes rules for farmer's markets across the state. Previously, individual counties could interpret the safe temperature regulations differently. Champaign County required electrical, commercial-grade refrigeration while others like McLean County would allow coolers with sufficient ice to maintain safe food storage temperatures. The commercial-grade refrigeration required by Champaign County could be cost prohibitive for small beginning farmers and is a limitation on some from entering the marketplace. The new law standardizes the rules statewide by stating that an ice-packed cooler capable of maintaining a safe temperature is sufficient at all markets. This removes a cost barrier for producers while maintaining a safe food supply for consumers.

The Illinois Food Freedom Act (HB3063) is the second law that will revolutionize farmers' markets in Illinois. Previously, the "cottage food" laws permitted very specific foods to be made in home kitchens for sale at farmers' markets. These cottage foods were limited to jams, dry bundled herbs and some baked goods. Prior to this year, there was an exact list of what could be considered a cottage food. The Illinois Food Freedom Act creates a paradigm shift from what can be a cottage food to what cannot be.

This means that other than a list of foods that pose a significant food safety risk and should only be manufactured in a commercial environment, all other foods can be made in a home kitchen and sold at a farmers' market. This will expand the offerings at local farmers' markets to include more prepared foods, pickles, oils, vinegars, dehydrated foods, fermented foods and much more. The modifications to this law provide more opportunities for creative food businesses and allow agricultural entrepreneurs a chance to test products for popularity before investing in large-scale, regulated commercial development.

These laws benefit both people who eat food and people who grow it. People who grow food are provided easier, more affordable market access with less regulation and are given an opportunity to experiment with new, creative products to grow their business in a cost-effective environment. Consumers will have more unique choices and hopefully more small businesses to choose from.

To learn more about local food options and the new laws and their effects on farmers' markets, join the Champaign County Farm Bureau Young Ag Leaders and the Illinois Stewardship Alliance from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Champaign County Farm Bureau Auditorium.

Lynn Doran is the Champaign County Farm Bureau Young Ag Leader committee chair and spearheads the local Illini Farm Toy Show. Doran graduated from Colorado State University and is currently an artisan cheese maker at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery.