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Lots of consumers are smitten with local food, but they're not the only ones. The growing market is also providing an opportunity for less experienced farmers to expand their business and polish their craft.
But they need help, and increasingly it's coming from food hubs, which can also serve as food processing and distribution centers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that there are about 240 of them in more than 40 states plus the District of Columbia.
Donna O'Shaughnessy and her husband, Keith Parrish, are first-generation farmers in rural Chatsworth, Ill., about two hours south of Chicago. They sell dairy products and meat, and raise a host of animals, including a few colorful peacocks.
For many years, they ended each year in the red. But business took off about five years ago, with restaurant owners as far away as Chicago putting in orders.
They say they owe a lot to a year-round local food hub called Stewards of the Land, started in 2005 by Marty and Kris Travis, farmers in nearby Fairbury, Ill. It's one of two the couple started in rural Illinois.
The Travises became middlemen to fill a hole in the market. "As we go, we can incubate these farms, and get them on their feet to do their own things," Marty says.
Members of their food hubs include about 40 small family farmers, each of whom pays a small fee to join. In exchange, they get cheaper liability insurance, and access to a much larger pool of clients and training.
"The new generation of farmers is a little over half the group," says Marty. "Many of them were under the age of 18 when they joined. We're very interested in growing great produce, but we're also very passionate about growing great farmers."
One up-and-coming farmer is Derek Stoller, 16, of Fairbury, Ill. He joined Stewards of the Land when he was just 9-years-old and growing Indian corn. Since then — working in his parents' backyard and putting his family to work — he has moved on to other things like beets, parsley and carrots, grossing about $15,000 in 2012.
Stoller admits he has no idea if he will stay in agriculture forever, or what he will do with the rest of the life. But he's encouraged by his success so far.
Doug O'Brien, the acting under-secretary of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the infrastructure for local food is still lacking but growing fast. "Food hubs respond to that call," he says.
The USDA awarded Heartland Community College a nearly $100,000 grant in June 2012 to provide technical assistance to farmers to form three food hubs in Central Illinois.
One of the people behind that effort is Terra Brockman with the Edible Economy Project, a group working to create a community-owned food hub and farmer-owned cooperative serving farmers and consumers in a 32-county region of central Illinois.
She estimates the region loses about $5 billion annually because people buy food and agricultural inputs from outside the area.
"It used to be that when we talked about rural development, we talked about prisons and factories, and you know we're finally at the point where it's like, 'Hey, look around. In Illinois, when you're talking rural, you're talking farming,"' Brockman said. "Particularly this kind of small farming, direct marketed, feed your community kind of farming, where the money does stay and circulate within your community."
O'Brian expects the USDA to continue supporting food hubs, though some farmers worry that could lead to more regulations. But at least for now, they do not appear to be keeping food hubs from growing.
Sean Powers is a reporter at NPR member station WILL in Urbana, Ill. A version of this story appeared on the site of Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.
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