By STEVE BINDER
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A growing number of fruit and vegetable growers in Illinois are taking advantage of events designed specifically to link their goods with large-scale regional buyers.
The sixth “Meet the Buyers” event sponsored by the Illinois Farm Bureau takes place today in Springfield, and a bureau representative said the number of participants grows each time.
One of the key attractions, said Cynthia Haskins, is that farmers can meet directly with foodservice distributors, restaurant owners and chefs, direct-to-consumer distributors, food hub managers and grocery store directors. Haskins is the Farm Bureau’s manager of business development and compliance.
The event today has about 40 farmers signed up and another 15 large-scale buyers participating. Approximately 30 farmers and a dozen buyers attended the last Meet the Buyers event in the northern Illinois community of Freeport on Aug. 28. Altogether, the six events will have attracted more than 200 growers, Haskins said.
Cosponsors of the regional events include local county Farm Bureaus, University of Illinois extension, the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) and the Illinois Specialty Growers Assoc. Kendra Buchanan, IDOA local foods liaison, said the events give growers a forum in which to meet a multitude of potential buyers.
“In this industry, the difficulty for producers often lies in making the right connections. These events are the perfect setting for the proper people to meet and begin building working relationships,” Buchanan said.
The events are set up not only to allow growers to meet privately with buyers, but they also include sessions about the standards buyers require of products they purchase, Haskins said. They are designed to help increase the sale of locally produced goods.
“Farmers have a lot to do to meet the buyers’ requirements, so there are two educational programs in the morning,” Haskins said.
At today’s event, extension specialist Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant will discuss the MarketReady program and conduct a Good Agricultural Practices training session. Jim Birge, manager of the Sangamon County Farm Bureau, said the events are important ways for growers to find additional markets for their products.
“As we see the expansion of local food demand, it seems only natural that we would look for direct interaction with food distributors and retailers to showcase and make available the products of central Illinois,” he said.
Tim Watson, an organic grower in southern Illinois, connected two years ago with the local high school district in Carbondale and with Southern Illinois University, and now has annual contracts with both to sell his lettuce and spinach.
“I now sell hundreds of pounds of my fresh produce to two of the largest entities in our region, and that means a lot for my operation to have that guaranteed sale,” he said.