Locally grown produce… three words that resonate with consumers. In Peoria County, numerous farm families offer locally grown produce; in fact, it's often grown in their backyard gardens. While corn and soybeans dominate the acreage throughout the Midwest, there is often a small patch of land set aside for fresh fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes and green beans.
Fifty years ago, the words "locally grown produce" did not have the meaning it has today. In decades past, a much higher percentage of our population were either farmers, or had close relatives who were farmers. It was common to grow a large garden and spend much of the summer canning or freezing fresh produce to last the entire year. Fast forward to 2017, and farmers are much fewer in number. As a result, it seems gardens have lost their flavor to much of the population. It's just too easy to go to the grocery store.
With that said, there has been a resurgence of interest in the past decade, as many consumers are seeking out local food and fresh produce at farmers’ markets, through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and even directly at a farm. More recently, some of the traditional grocery stores are stocking food grown by local farmers.
Farmers’ markets in the City of Peoria include the Peoria RiverFront Market, the Peoria Farmers’ Market at Metro Centre, and the Junction City Farmers’ Market.
The Peoria RiverFront Market is open on Saturday mornings from 8am to noon in the River Station parking lot. There are 70 to 80 vendors each week, and approximately half sell food and produce—all of it grown in Illinois. It is a producers-only market, meaning that the produce must have been grown by the person selling the product or a family member.
In recent years, the Riverfront Market has begun to accept LINK cards, which encourages lower-income people to purchase healthier foods. Up to $20 of LINK card purchases at the market can be matched; the user must then spend the matched amount on fresh fruits and vegetables. Over the last several years, an average of $10,000 has been spent at the Market through LINK Card purchases, with another $10,000 in matching funds for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases.
One program, which may not be as familiar as the three farmers’ markets listed above, is the Harvest Program at EP!C (Empowering People Inspiring Capabilities), located at 1913 W. Townline Road in Peoria, north of Pioneer Parkway. Mark Britton, program manager and a horticulture graduate of Illinois Central College, is using his knowledge and skills to educate and provide fresh produce for the employees at EP!C (served in the cafeteria), area restaurants and chefs, in addition to making food donations to the Midwest Food Bank.
Britton is not alone in this endeavor, as EP!C employees and volunteers provide much of the labor to bring this fresh produce to consumers. EP!C has a one-acre garden (which could be expanded to four acres) and a greenhouse; all of the produce is started from seed in the greenhouse or from rootstock (potatoes). Some of the produce grown at EP!C are tomatoes, peppers, sweet onions, potatoes, lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and green beans. Britton indicates that 80 percent of the produce is more traditional, while 20 percent is more unusual, including purple sweet potatoes, the hottest and second-hottest peppers in the world, and a 600-year-old native American variety of squash with a unique name: Gete-Okosimin.
So where are the farmers who are growing the meat and produce sold at local markets and restaurants? Here are a few of their names and locations… The Garden Spot in Princeville; Greengold Acres in Hanna City; Hartz Produce in Wyoming; Grandma and Grandpa's Farm in Sparland; and Bluehaven Farm in Speer. iBi