Challenges ahead for expanding Elgin Harvest Market
By Mike Danahey email@example.com @DanaheyECN on Twitter September 23, 2013 7:06PM
Chris Prchal is a local grower at the market. The Harvest Market in downtown Elgin offers a variety of fresh and organic products. | Joe Cyganowski-For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 25, 2013 6:04AM
ELGIN — Growing downtown Elgin’s seasonal Harvest Market and getting a proposed food co-op off the ground in the center city will not be easy tasks.
That’s the conclusion of Zoe Clemmons, who spent the summer as a marketing and sustainability associate with the outdoor market. Clemmons, 19, is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire majoring in public relations with a minor in environment, society and culture.
Clemmons wrote a paper at the request of Harvest Market manager Jennifer Benson. Benson commended Clemmons’ approach to the project, which shows how layered and complicated it is to bring locally produced foods to local shoppers.
“This process is gradual. There is no magic something that will make it happen,” Benson said.
Clemmons wrote, “The ability to upgrade the Elgin Harvest Market to a more accessible level in order to further the efforts of the local foods movement within the area poses a lot of challenges. The progression of local foods within Kane County is not feasible based on suburbanization, lack of food hubs, and economic support.”
By “upgrade ... to a more accessible level,” Clemmons said she meant getting the market to a larger audience and a broader range of people. The local-foods movement attempts to get people to see the value of eating things grown within 150 to 200 miles of where it is consumed, she explained, although Clemmons limited her analysis to Kane County.
“The closer food comes from to where it is consumed, the better it is for the environment,” she said.
Clemmons noted that land values in suburban areas such as Kane County make it harder for someone wanting to get into small-scale farming. There also is pressure to use local farmland to grow the state’s top commodity crops — soybeans and corn, much of which is sent out of Illinois.
Clemmons wrote that there are 759 farms with an average size of 253 acres in Kane County, compared to 1949 when there were 2,029 Kane farms with an average size of 147 acres.
Lack of food hubs
There are obstacles for farmers who do participate in the Harvest Market and other such endeavors that Clemmons heard about during her project.
For example, Sara Naden of Naturally Naked Foods told her that in order to process meat from the chickens she raises, Naden travels fours hours from her Sugar Grove land to Arthur, Ill. To make ends meet, Clemmons said, at least one of the farmers setting up in Elgin on Thursdays was hitting another 14 markets during the course of a week. Many have second jobs, she said.
Clemmons noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food hub “as a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.”
Their purpose is to serve as a place where local farmers can go to sell their produce and meat to markets and co-ops in a more efficient way, Clemmons explained.
“Currently, there are only four food hubs in Illinois, one in the suburb of Niles and the others in Chicago. These are very small distribution centers, but none are large enough to set in place the utopian ideal of a food hub. It would be a several-year process in order to compose a large facility food hub to meet the needs of a large population of people such as a hospital or university,” Clemmons wrote.
“It remains a struggle as to whether a large collection of small farmers in Kane County would be willing to meet the demand for a large center food hub, considering only one in six people will continue to go out of their way for local food.”
While supportive of the effort, Clemmons said she is skeptical whether there is a sufficient customer base to grow a food co-op in Elgin.
“The ability to create a spot in downtown Elgin for people to obtain local food year-round will be another way to connect food from farm to fork, but is still not as large of an undertaking a large food hub has the capacity for,” Clemmons wrote.
Shared Harvest is the food co-op indoor grocery store that a group of Elgin people are working to bring to the downtown. Co-ops are owned and operated by those who buy shares or become members, but often are open to the general public. They stress locally grown food but also bring in typically organically raised items from elsewhere to supplement offerings.
According to a July posting on the Natural Awakenings website, Elgin’s effort is among a half-dozen or so food co-ops being planned in Illinois. The Co-Op Directory Service website lists just nine locations for “natural food co-ops” of any sort in Illinois, with only one in the suburbs (Matteson), three in Chicago, three in college towns, and two in western Illinois.
Shared Harvest vice president and business manager Jennifer Shroder said the group now has 180 members and has sold more than 230 shares — and enough to pay for a feasibility study about opening such a store. Organizers figure it will cost about $1.1 million to get the project up and running, and she said they are cautious about setting a timetable for when that might happen.
Shroder and others have visited co-ops in Illinois and elsewhere. She noted one in a small town near Green Bay, Wis., that has 1,000 members.
As for why she thinks a co-op will succeed in Elgin, Shroder said, “Every time I turn around, someone asks me about it.”
However, Harvest Market vendor Chris Prchal from Trogg’s Hollow farm in Elgin is not convinced the city would support a co-op.
On Thursday morning, Tom Creighton, owner of On the Side restaurant downtown, bought a tub of tomatoes from Prchal for making jam to go with some dishes.
“He stops by every week to use what we might have,” Prchal said.
While the above offers sample of how local food can work, as for a co-op, Prchal said, “Elgin doesn’t have the number of customers it would need for this to happen.”
He said a lot more needs to be done to educate people on why they should eat locally grown food and that given the city’s demographics, convincing people to spend more for such will be challenging.
“Only a small percentage of food grown in Illinois is consumed here,” Prchal said. “This is different than Wisconsin, where the state more aggressively promotes local foods and where the agricultural system is more diverse than this state.”
Promoting the local foods movement, though, is what Clemmons sees as her career goal.
“It will take flipping people’s perspective on food and convincing them why it matters — that though such food might cost more, the positives outweigh the negative side which includes the food miles meals travel, that biological implications of mass produced food, and that the current ways are not good for the environment. And that also will take changing the agricultural system in Illinois,” Clemmons said.
The downtown Harvest Market continues Thursdays, in the parking lot on Kimball Street across from Gail Borden Public Library, through Oct. 3. A second Elgin Thursday outdoor market in the parking lot of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church and School, 195 Nesler Road, runs from 4 to 8 p.m. through Oct. 24.