Organic, local produce trend migrates to the western Chicago suburbs

Suburban residents shop at the local Downers Grove farmers market at 7 a.m. on Saturday. 

Suburban residents shop at the local Downers Grove farmers market at 7 a.m. on Saturday. 

Hot, sunny Saturday mornings are a treat when a large glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade is involved. The Downers Grove farmers market was filled to the brim with customers who rise early for produce picked within the last 24 hours. In just one morning, more than a thousand people visited and engaged with their local farmers, then left with fresh produce and maybe even a pitcher of that sweet lemonade.

The Downers Grove farmers market has been an annual event for 24 years. In the past five years, there has been a great rise in the consumer turnout in suburban markets across the nation.

The "eating local and organic food" trend infiltrated the western suburbs, and it only hit Chicago just a few years ago. Regardless of the origin, more people are taking an organic approach, and everyone has their own reasons for doing so.

A dozen interviews were conducted Saturday and almost unanimously, people said that they have been coming to the market since it began and they have valued health over anything. Some people who have been less frequent visitors in the last decade or less said they started coming after consuming all kinds of media that exposed different sides of the mass agricultural world.

“It sounds like numbers have been increasing,” said Heath Newland, marketing coordinator for the Downers Grove farmers market. “Possibly a combination of the seasonal weather, the rise of food documentaries, and the idea of getting your food from a local producer is better than a giant corporation.”

Newland said there is a growing need for a healthier lifestyle and environment through variety: “The farmers market offers a different experience than just going to the supermarket; it’s good to have the choice.”

One main goal for many consumers is to grow a strong relationship with their producers and obtain a variety of outlets to build on their network.

Before the break of dawn, Kristin Srail and her family of Windy Acres Farm perform their weekly regimen of picking and preparing produce for the day’s farmers market. On Saturdays, this vendor drives to Downers Grove from Geneva to see its loyal customers and dear friends.

“People want that fresh flavor, they want something more local, they want to support small businesses,” Srail said. “It’s nice to be outside, it’s enjoyable, you make friends here and you get to know your farmer.”

Aside from farmers markets, suburbs like Downers Grove still look to alternatives to traditional supermarkets for year-round, locally grown produce. Since the farmers market is only active during the summer, local communities find solace in co-operative organizations, allowing them another choice.

“Co-ops are great economic generators for communities,” said Jerry Nash, co-founder of the Lombard-based Prairie Food Co-op. “A co-op’s first mission is to sell what its community wants to sell, that way co-ops always reflect the community. The main focus of our co-op and most co-ops is to provide a marketplace for local farmers and food producers to sell their goods and wares.”

In order to have more trusting relationships with the community, co-ops value transparency. They realize that not all products can be totally local, so they express that to the community with proper labeling. Nash said that community education is highly beneficial to build this trust and keep money flowing locally.

Another tool that both farmers markets and co-ops use is Community Supported Agriculture. “There’s a farm called Walnut Acres and they have a meat CSA. My family picks up meat from them once a month. We’ve been to their farms, saw their methods and saw that their animals are treated well,” Nash said.

CSAs are supported by shareholders within a community. They share the risks, as well as the benefits with farmers. This way, there is a check-and-balance system to make sure ethical and humane treatment of crops and livestock are in order while keeping a loyal consumer base.

Co-ops are better able to give long-term sustainability to these local farmers rather than selling goods during a farmers market. This sustainability is present with or without a CSA to back up a farmer.

With high traffic in farmers markets and co-op organizations like Prairie Food, it is evident as to why the organic, local trend hit Downers Grove and its surrounding villages so rapidly. Nash said that sometimes, it is the business model of these organizations and groups that attract more customers, but most of the time, it is the consumer’s choice that brings them to the local producers.

Although it seems like a great change in modern lifestyles and national awareness, Srail said it is but a simple change: “I think it’s beyond a trend now. It’s not just cool to go to the market, it’s getting back to the basics.”