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Southern Illinois is home to a vast array of specialty crops

Southern Illinois is home to a vast array of specialty crops

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Illinois is one of the top producing states in the U.S. for corn and soybeans; a drive through central Illinois makes that apparent. However, Illinois is also a top grower of several specialty crops because of our favorable climate and good soil. What exactly are specialty crops?

The phrase sounds as if we’re discussing unique or unusual foods. In fact, the tomato in your salad is a specialty crop. So is the green bell pepper on your pizza and the asparagus next to your steak at dinner. Specialty crops include foods many of us eat regularly.

Specialty crops are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.” According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Illinois devotes more than 100,000 acres of farmland to growing specialty crops, which produce nearly $500 million in sales for Illinois farmers.

Many specialty crops are grown right here in Southern Illinois, which makes buying locally grown food not only easy, but also important. Buying local keeps an additional 32 cents per dollar in our communities. Local farmers’ markets are a great place to shop, but many area grocery markets also carry locally grown food items.

A growing interest in specialty crops in the early 2000s resulted in Title X (Horticulture and Organic Agriculture) of the 2008 Farm Bill. This was the first time specialty crops had been given special attention in agriculture policy development, partly because of a collective concern over health, diet, and an ever-growing obesity problem in the United States.

Increasing nutrition knowledge and consumption of specialty crops is one of the goals of the USDA. This is being achieved in part by the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which helps combat childhood obesity by introducing elementary school children to foods — specialty crops — they may not have an opportunity to eat at home.

Another aspect concerns educating people on the use of specialty crops in home cooking. While more of us (82% according to Food Network) are preparing meals at home than 10 years ago, only 14% of us cook because we love to. Millennials barely cook at all — only once or twice a week, according to prepandemic numbers. Not everyone knows how to prepare winter squash for cooking or what to do with a radish beyond slicing it for salad.

While no specific federal educational programs exist, there are many localized programs across the country that teach people of all ages how to use specialty crops in their cooking. Much like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, the overall idea is to introduce people to a variety of foods so that they expand their cooking repertoire. To that end, follow The Southern Illinoisan’s Taste section on Wednesdays this summer to learn more about using a variety of local specialty crops in your cooking.

Niki Davis is the creator of Rooted in Foods food heritage blog and a regular contributor to The Southern Illinoisan's weekly Taste section. You can find her at


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