Local sourcing of produce is a decision that involves detailed consideration before implementation. Several aspects need to be addressed. Some of this include climatic suitability, environmental impact, use of chemicals, transportation costs, etc. Relying on locally-grown foods may cause issues like the listeria outbreak, but also cause more environmental resources to be consumed for the growing of food. Growing a plant in an area with too little water or too much water will result in the farm taking on extra costs. Growing a plant in an area where soil quality is low will require extra fertilizer.
In fact, growing foods locally can have a negative impact on the environment and human health. An example from 2011 can illustrate this. A farm in Colorado grew cantaloupes as well as raised cattle. The weather in Colorado is fairly moist so that allowed listeria bacteria to grown on the skin of the cantaloupe which caused an outbreak. Cantaloupes grown in the drier climate of New Mexico would have been safer.
Despite the negative odds, the Sustainable Student Farm, an initiative that was started in 2009, is thriving at the University of Illinois campus. It is a 5-acre vegetable farm that grows 35-40 different crops for the campus community and teach students about vegetable production and organic practices. It is managed by 2 managers who are employees of the Crops Science Department and has student volunteers who get a taste of what work on a vegetable farm is like. They also have student employees who get to be more involved in the day to day operation of the farm. The hands on learning experience is a valuable type of educational experience and one that often is not included in the university experience.
The goal for the farm is to benefit primarily the student body. They wish to be a place where students can learn about diversified vegetable production. They also sell 85-90 percent of what they grow directly to the dining halls for student consumption. The rest is sold at a farm stand on the quad for the general campus community.
There are several benefits associated with sourcing produce locally. It vastly lowers the carbon footprint of food if it is grown near where it is eaten rather than being shipped across the country. Complex food systems are going to be inherently more stable (especially in an increasingly unpredictable climate) than relying on one part of the country to grow all of the food. Food locally grown can be done so in a way that will allow the produce to be developed for flavor and nutrients, rather than for ship-ability; allowing for many of the important nutrients in food to be more present in a locally produced product. It also has the potential to improve the local economy if we are able to have food production and processing and sales in a local region to create jobs in an “industry”that is vital for healthy communities.
The future of the farm is largely to continue to grow the program in a number of different ways; They want to be able to incorporate more classes into the farm, and have certain parts of the farm essentially completely managed by students. Ultimately, they wish to develop a part of the farm to be used for experimentation to grow more food on campus.
The farm is always looking out for volunteers, and even hire students. They are also willing to work on collaborative programs and projects too. For more information, visit their website at thefarm.illinois.edu.