It's that time of year again! The trees and grass and gardens are exploding with green. The weather has warmed up (kind of), and we can feel summer rapping at the door. And the best part of all this just might be the anticipation of juicy berries, crisp asparagus, flavorful tomatoes, gorgeous greens, and all the other delicious, energizing favorites we can soon expect to find at the farmers' market.
Throughout the pre-season, I've been chatting with our vendors and learning more about their farms and what they love about selling at a farmers' market. For many, the start of market season feels like back-to-school or even a family reunion. We all come back together, often after months not seeing each other, and it's fun to see how everyone has changed, but it also always feels like the last season just ended.
So what does keep our vendors coming back season after season, braving the wind and rain and heat to bring you local food? Three major themes emerged from our conversations:
1. Interacting with customers
This was by far the most frequent answer, and probably most customers same reason for heading out to shop at the farmers' market too (well, after taste, anyway). The farmers I spoke to love getting to talk with shoppers and learn what brings their customers back to their stands week after week. They love hearing about the recipes patrons have tried with their products and seeing their excitement at tasting a sweet cherry tomato or the first strawberry of the season (even if the customer doesn't end up loving the product). They appreciate shoppers' questions and are happy to talk about their farms and swap farming and gardening stories.
2. Getting good food to people
Another theme that emerged in our conversations was the pride our venodrs feel in their product, and not just because they know that a superior, fresh, well-tended too product can fetch a higher price, but because they truly feel committed to our community eating better. You can see the excitement when they talk about how the lack of preservatives and the care that goes into baking bread with traditional methods leads to better taste, better texture, and something that's actually real food. Or when they talk about the importance of getting produce so soon after its been harvested, and their disgust with grocery store produce that has been in transit for weeks or even months. We also see a real investment in our food assistance program, with vendors citing the chance to get fresher, more nutritious food into the hands of those who often can't afford it as one of the main reasons they continue to sell at our market. Our vendors don't just want us to buy their products, they want us to cook it, eat it, and feel good that we did.
3. Making money
At our Mastering the Farmers' Market workshops earlier this year, Katie Bishop, of PrairiErth Farm, seemed to hesitate when she offered her answer of why she loves selling at the farmers' market, as if it wasn't the answer we're supposed to give, but it's the answer everyone really want to offer: her favorite part about selling at the farmers' market is making money. Now that doesn't mean that she got into the farmers' market game for the big bucks, whatever your opinion about farmers' market prices, your vendors are not rolling in dough by the end of each market as much as some shoppers might think. But making money is absolutely a critical part of selling at a farmers' market, and not just for the vendors. What Katie meant was that she loves that she's able to make a living, and help her employees make a living, by selling this great food that she grows. As much as we may feel inspired by altruistic answers about getting good food to people, we also have to keep in mind that everyone needs to make a living. And in order to have farmers living nearby growing delicious food that can be harvested and make its way to our kitchens within a matter of hours, we need to make sure our farmers are able to support themselves. Because in doing so, they're not just giving our taste buds a boost, they're also helping our local economies, and so are you by shopping at the Market. Spending your dollars directly with your local farmers can have 2-3 times the impact on the local economy as shopping at the grocery store. Our local farmers are also hiring locally, purchasing supplies locally, and of course spending their income locally. The farmers' market makes money for the farmers, but also for the community.
So come out May 16 for Opening Day of the Champaign Farmers' Market and let's start the season off strong. We open at 3:30 in the parking lot at Neil & Main, in Downtown Champaign. Learn more about the market here, and sign up for the Weekly Harvest to get your Tuesday morning market update.