Operating a farmers market in the age of the coronavirus is a difficult task. On Sunday, August 2, customers lined up for 15 to 20 minutes at the Wicker Park Farmers Market; they wore masks, were prohibited from touching items that they weren’t buying, and went in through one entryway and departed from another. But the market was missing Nichols Farm, a vendor for the last two decades. Earlier this week, the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce, which runs the weekly event, threw out Nichols, saying the vendor’s employees refused to abide by COVID-19-era rules.
The Wicker Park Farmers Market is celebrating its 20th birthday, and Nichols Farm has been there from the start, even selling produce in the neighborhood three years before the market was officially started. The Marengo farm is established on the farmers market circuit, selling to customers around the city. It’s also a favorite among Chicago restaurant owners: Paul Kahan uses its produce at One Off Hospitality Group, Rick Bayless tweeted out his support after the ban, and veteran Chicago chef Dean Zanella — now of Tripoli Tap in Lincoln Park — has known the Nichols family for decades. If a chef wanted something special — a zucchini blossom, for instance — Nichols was the place to call.
“They have the most diversity of all the farmers,” Zanella says.
Kahan and Zanella shared their frustrations Sunday morning in front of Big Star, where Nichols docked its truck for the day, handing out about 400 plastic bags filled with corn, cantaloupe, and other goodies. The bags were filled with produce Nichols planned to sell at the market, but giving the food out for free was a better choice than composting or tossing it, says Nick Nichols, who helps run his parents’ 42-year-old business.
“Markets are all about the community, and they literally said they don’t want us in the community,” Nichols says.
Nichols, who works on the family farm, believes that kicking the farm out of the market was something the chamber has planned since it took over managing the event three years ago. The city of Chicago had managed the market prior.
The chamber’s choices, Nichols thinks, reflect a philosophy that now prioritizes smaller farms. Market officials gave Nichols Farm a cramped space, smaller than the founding market member was accustomed to.
A city spokesperson confirms an inspector visited the market on July 12 for a spot check, and that the inspector then made recommendations to market manager Alice Rowe. The inspector did not make an official written or verbal citation.
Nichols says the problem stems from a worker unloading a truck without wearing a mask. Another violation was for not roping off the vendor stall to keep customers away from the produce The chamber is using COVID-19 is an excuse, Nichols says. In an email sent by Howe to Nichols’s mother, Doreen Nichols (she and Lloyd Nichols founded the farm in 1978), Howe apologizes for kicking the farm out and writes that “after several years of dealing with incredibly difficult and disrespectful staff who have jeopardized our market, this is the decision I have to make.”
Nichols describes an incident last week at the market when an elderly customer (she couldn’t hear well, he says) struggled to abide by the rules and was touching the produce. The market manager was nearby. A Nichols employee asked for assistance from the manager, but was shrugged off, Nichols says. The worker, according to Nichols, grew angry and exploded at the manager. Nichols says this clash, not COVID-19 safety violations, was behind the ban.
“He knows he should have been more discreet and bit his tongue,” Nichols says, adding, “But this was fixable.”
The chamber informed Nichols on July 27 of its decision, and the family took to social media to share their story. According to a statement attributed to chamber executive director Pamela Maass, “Nichols Farm was in noncompliance of several safety protocols, and we attempted to work with them that day to resolve the issues.” A city inspector visited the market on July 12 and — according to the chamber — found “additional noncompliance issues.” A chamber spokesperson says Nichols had to be “constantly reminded” to keep their masks on, that they didn’t have required handwashing stations, and they lacked “proper barriers to prevent customers from handling produce.”
“They were the sole vendor to decline to rectify the issues on-site that day,” the chamber’s statement reads.
While stating “we understand this is an especially difficult time and our staff has been working around the clock to assist businesses in the neighborhood,” the chamber adds that “the leadership of Nichols Farm has not yet reached out to us to properly address these health and safety issues.” A plan of action is required of restaurants and bars — such as Cork & Kerry (which is back open in Beverly) — that have been closed for COVID-19 violations. It’s essentially an acknowledgment of wrongdoing and a pledge to do better.
Nichols wonders where the chamber’s empathy went, especially during a crisis that has jeopardized the restaurant industry, usually a major source of income for the farm. Kahan, who closed Blackbird and Cafe Cancale during the pandemic, is fired up about the situation. “They are facing the same shit we all are during the pandemic,” he says.
Zanella, a veteran chef who knew Nichols’s father, says Nichols was targeted. He says that through the years, organizers — even at the iconic Green City Market in Lincoln Park — have bent safety rules. These vendors weren’t banned from the farmers market.
The chamber says Nichols could return next year if the family reaches “out to us directly to professionally address their COVID-19 health and safety noncompliance issues. We will consider their re-admittance to the market only at that time.”
Nichols will still have a presence in Wicker Park. While they won’t be giving away free food, customers can pick up CSAs (community-supported agriculture) at Big Star on Sundays. He still hangs on to hope that he and the farmers market can find a resolution, and that the farm will return this year.