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Farmers Markets, They Grow Up So Fast!

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In the grand scheme of things, we're still a pretty young market here in Champaign. With the start of the new year, however, it has really struck me: this year the Champaign Farmers Market turns 5! It doesn't feel like 4 years could have possibly gone by since we opened up on that first Tuesday of May in 2015, hoping that at least some people would show up and buy from our farmers. As we all set up for the first time, I remember us all constantly reassuring each other saying "hey, this does look like a market!"  

And so we grew up slowly, with plenty of growing pains, but even more joy along the way. We've learned to find a better balance between the size of our customer base and the number of vendors, so that the vendors we do have at the market are making enough money to keep them coming back (not that we aren't intent on working hard to grow that customer base!). We've developed exciting new incentive programs to help fight food insecurity in the community, and so far we've helped over 420 SNAP recipients, giving out over $35,000 in matching funds in just four short years! We've also helped forge stronger bonds between customers, local food producers, and local farmers, leading to collaborations that have resulted in some very tasty treats at the market!

How the USDA has invested in TLC

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Back in September at the National Direct Ag Marketing summit, I got the chance to present a poster on TLC's work combining grants to bolster our farmers market and food access programming (more about that trip in a past blog entry). In a nutshell, our poster outlined how the Champaign Farmers Market has been able to bring together funding from the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program, and the Specialty Crop Block Grant (ISC--for Illinois Specialty Crop) in order to boost sales at the farmers market and strengthen our food access work in the community. These three USDA grant programs have done more than just make us learn an impressive number of acronyms--they've allowed us to support a wide range of programs by building the programs strategically so that they all bolster each other. 

Should I squeeze your tomatoes?: What your vendors would like you to know

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The winding down of farmers market season always brings mixed emotions with it. On the one hand, it's getting colder and colder each week and we've been at it for 6 months, and in some ways, we're just ready to be done standing around a parking lot. On the other hand, though, we realize how much we're going to miss seeing each other (vendors, customers, volunteers, and staff) every week, and how much we're going to miss having ready access to this great food on a weekly basis. (Of course you can still get plenty of local food at Common Ground Food Co-op, the indoor Market in the Square in Urbana, Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery's The Real Stand, and other places, but still the offerings are a bit slimmer in winter). 

Dispatches from the 2018 National Direct Agricultural Marketing Summit

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Last week I flew out east to attend the first ever National Direct Agricultural Market Summit, organized by the USDA, Farmers Market Coalition, Farm Credit Council, Food Distribution Research Society and National Value Added Conference. Held in Arlington, VA, the Summit was designed to pull together farmers market managers, leaders of statewide farmers market organizations, representatives from several divisions of the USDA, researchers, entrepreneurs, market related service providers, and other business and community representatives involved in local food. We were selected to display at the poster session and put together a poster highlighting the ways we have combined project support from various USDA grants to bolster market sales for local farmers and improve access to local food in our community. 

It All Started with a Pigtato

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Once upon a first farmers market season, I happened upon a funny looking potato that reminded me of the Pigs! In! Space! pigs on The Muppet Show. We put on some googly eyes (because as a farmers market, we're always stocked with the essentials), and lo, Pigtato was born. Admittedly, I received many a doubtful look from my colleagues, but at community events and at the market, Pigtato was a big hit with kids and adults alike. There was usually a double take, and then they loved him. I took that potato around with me for over a month, until he started to shrivel beyond repair. And that inspired one of my favorite Champaign Farmers Market traditions: the annual Ugly Produce Beauty Pageant.  

Why do we love the farmers market?

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August is upon us. We're on the cusp of peak farmers market season. The trifecta is here (peaches, sweet corn, and tomatoes). We see whole rainbows of peppers and cherry tomatoes around the market. I've spotted at least 4 different types of eggplants, and this coming Tuesday a pickup full of watermelons is rolling in... It's time to celebrate farmers markets in all their glory as we head into National Farmers Market Week (August 5-11, 2018). 

Instead of me going on and on about what I love at my own baby, the Champaign Farmers Market (so many things, but number #1 is definitely the people...and the dogs...and of course the food), I've asked our farmers, sponsors, volunteers, market regulars, and other community supporters what they like best about our little market.

Here's what they had to say...

Local Food and the Farm Bill

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In the sustainable farming and farmers market community, we've all been watching the developments surrounding the 2018 very closely. Last summer, both Mallory and I had the opportunity to speak at a House Ag Committee listening session at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur. Together with a coalition of local food advocates pulled together by the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, speakers who were called up had two minutes to address House Ag Committee Chair Rep. Conaway and 7 other members of the commitee, including 3 Illinois representatives (Mike Bost, Cheri Bustos, and Rodney Davis). Mallory spoke about the importance of Farm Bill programs that support the training of new farmers, and I talked about the huge impact of the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) on a market such as ours, and on the importance of programs that support and boost SNAP access at farmers markets.

Farmers Markets and SNAP

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Last week I got to make my National Public Radio debut, as a guest on WILL's show The 21st with Niala Boodhoo, along with Catherine Dunlop (manager of the Downtown Bloomington Farmers Market) and Natalie Moore (WBEZ Chicago’s South Side bureau reporter). And of course, ever since the interview, I keep thinking of additional points I could have made, so I'll make some of them here.

But first...listen to the interview!

Misperceptions about SNAP

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One of the critical debates at the center of the new Farm Bill is the future of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Farm Bill has typically enjoyed bipartisan support, however the current negotiation has been halted over proposed rules that would tighten work requirements for beneficiaries, a reform that could cut off as many as 1 million recipients.[1] SNAP accounts for around 80% of the Farm Bill budget. Not many details about the proposed changes have been released, just that stricter work requirements would be imposed on able-bodied adults without children, as well as those with school-age children. 

I hear a lot of discussion from both the general public and our elected representatives that indicate there are still so many misconceptions about the SNAP program, and I’d like to dive deeper into SNAP over my next couple of blogs.

What's new at the Champaign Farmers' Market this season?

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It's a gorgeous sunny day outside, and this afternoon I took a walk over by the Market site to enjoy a little fresh air. It's doesn't quite look like Market season yet (we need a little more green on the trees for that), but it felt warmer on February 26 than at some of those late-season markets last October!

Right now it's hardcore planning season: fundraising so that we can continue to offer SNAP incentives and afford equipment and Market staff, planning fun promotional events to help get the community excited for Market season, and mapping out logistics, programming, and advertising. Applications have been rolling in from returning favorite vendors and a couple of new farms already. And the most important part of Market planning season is coming up with ways to get more people to buy our fresh offerings. That's why we're all here, right? 

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