While Frey Farms and the J.R. Kelly Company are well known nationally for their products, you don’t have to be big to be successful in the specialty crop industry. A viable business plan, a passion for the industry, and a strong work ethic can take you far.
A little help from some experts doesn’t hurt either.
That’s where the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) comes in. As part of the federal Farm Bill, the IDOA has received funding over the past few years to promote the specialty crop industry in the state. According to Delayne Reeves, grant manager for IDOA, the funding received from the federal program is “used to increase the competitiveness of the industry and to help it grow.”
For 2012, the state received $630,000 in specialty crop grant monies. “Recently, we’ve used the grant money for outreach, education, research and promotion of the industry as a whole,” Reeves says. “The efforts must be a partnership that benefits the whole industry rather than assisting individual producers.”
One such effort is the “Where Fresh Is” campaign, a logo program that Illinois producers can use as a marketing tool to help sell their produce at local grocery stores and farmers markets. In addition, IDOA partners with the CBS affiliate in Chicago to promote “Where Fresh Is,” and the program’s website makes it easy for Illinoisans to find a farmers market near them.
Other initiatives that assist the specialty crop growers are the diverse training programs provided by the University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farm educators. Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant is one of several extension educators across the state working with growers as they establish and build their businesses. Such businesses require special people willing to work long hours in the heat performing physical labor. “It takes a very strong work ethic,” Cavanaugh-Grant says.
And although the University of Illinois Extension training programs can’t teach that, they do assist new and transitional producers in the development of scale-appropriate business and farm management plans. The Extension initiatives provide information and training in production and marketing techniques through workshops, classes, field days and beginning farmer training programs.
For the small specialty crop farmer, these efforts often fulfill a dream in addition to providing a living, and for consumers, retailers, restaurants and even schools, these efforts provide nutritious local food options.
In area communities, the “Where Fresh Is” program brings a healthy agritourism industry and economic opportunities, such as farmers markets, apple orchards, and pumpkin patches.
To find a famers market near you, check out the IDOA’s directory: www.agri.state.il.us/markets/farmers.