Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the shopping experience at Chicago-area farmers markets, and as the 2021 season kicked off this month, vendors and organizers will continue to employ safe shopping standards. As restrictions on outdoor events ease, markets hope to sustain the high interest in local agriculture that led to record sales in 2020.
The crisis pushed the start of the 2020 season to June as markets made operational plans that placed safety at the forefront. Organizers required masks and set up entrance checkpoints with one-way traffic. They maintained tight capacity limits, prohibited eating and drinking on site, and canceled special events. There were no chef demonstrations, kids’ activities, or live music. Shoppers waited in long lines at the entrances and booths and couldn’t touch or select their own produce. Yet despite these restrictions and stripped-down amenities, the markets thrived.
“Most if not all of my vendors said it was the best year we’d ever had,” says Downtown Evanston Farmers’ Market manager Myra Gorman.
Some farms decided to skip the 2020 markets or, anticipating lower demand, cut back on their plantings. But grocery store disruptions, a spike in home cooking, and the addition of new services to make shopping easier resulted in farms making up most of the sales they’d lost from selling directly to restaurants, or from early closures.
“We were kind of taken by surprise last year, because early in the year we didn’t know what to expect. So we held back a little bit,” says Todd Nichols, owner and manager of Nichols Farm & Orchard in Marengo. “This year we bumped up everything a little bit with the anticipation of a good year.”
Last week, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot updated guidelines for farmers markets, allowing the outdoor bazaars to operate at 25 percent capacity or 15 people per 1,000 square feet. Green City Market opened in May in Lincoln Park, still requiring masks and with its capacity limited to 500 people. That’s a big improvement over last year, when only 100 people at a time could shop, a struggle for an event that would draw 7,500 to 10,000 people on a typical pre-pandemic Saturday. Daily attendance last year typically hit about 5,000. Yet the shoppers who did attend spent more money, doing more of their shopping at the market to avoid making trips to the grocery store.
“It was really those super-committed shoppers coming through, because they knew they were waiting in line a little bit,” says Green City Market executive director Mandy Moody. “People were doing a lot of shopping at the market and increasing their purchasing, which was phenomenal because the farmers were really grateful to have that support.”
Green City Market cut its Wednesday Lincoln Park market last year, but that’s returned this season with programming including grab-and-go kids’ activities and chef Q&As that started with Beverly Kim (Parachute, Wherewithall).
“We’re excited to bring more of the community vibe back to the market,” Moody says. “We’re getting closer and closer to getting back to normal.”
After getting a late start back in 2020, the Lincoln Square Farmers Market opened a month early this year on May 4. Shoppers flocked there last year because they felt safer shopping outside than indoors, and they were also looking for an alternative to the canceled street festivals. While some of Lincoln Square’s usual vendors decided to sit out the season last year, organizers were able to fill the spots with pop-up vendors. Many of those new businesses are returning for the full season this year, so the market has expanded its space to accommodate 40 vendors on Tuesdays and Thursdays, nearly double what it had last year.
“Last year wound up working out really well for us,” says Nicole Benjamin, director of special events for the Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce. “We had a really great season. We got a lot of positive responses from the neighborhood, so it seemed like this is our time to start early, and we’re already getting a lot of positive feedback and excitement about it.”
Shortages at grocery stores caused by supply chain issues created high demand for meat and eggs at farmers markets. And local farms had their own disruptions, because the butchers they normally worked with were booked by bigger operations after COVID-19 shut down many large meat processing plants. The shortages, combined with the boom in home cooking caused by restaurant closures and the Illinois stay-at-home order, forced shoppers to get creative.
“With the butchering holdup, we had people trying more weird off-cuts [such as tongue and hearts] that they might not have tried if they weren’t cooking at home as much and if we weren’t sold out of the more premium items,” says Raya Carr, sales manager at Mint Creek Farm in Cabery, a village 85 miles south of Chicago.
Extra free time around the house and concerns about food supply also led to a spike in demand for seasonal garden plants like tomatoes, hot peppers, and basil. But those were also in short supply since they’re typically planted in March — farms didn’t grow as much because they weren’t sure if they’d have a place to sell them.
“We ended up being sold out of plants very early,” Nichols says. “This year I definitely have more plants available, and I’m hoping the increased gardening interest that people have shown in the past year will continue.”
The early closure of the farmers markets was a serious concern for Mint Creek Farm, combined with fewer orders from restaurants. Fortunately, though, the farm had an uptick in interest in its community supported agriculture memberships. (In a CSA, subscribers receive a package of seasonal and surplus products each week for a discounted price.) That’s because shoppers were looking to guarantee their meat supply during continued supply chain disruptions.
“I don’t think the farm would still be in business without those memberships,” says Carr. “They definitely grew during the pandemic, and we even had to create a waiting list for a few months. It’s leveled off at about double, but if we had been able to fulfill demand it would have been more like quadruple or quintuple what it was when the pandemic started.”
Growing Home in Englewood shut down its farm stand during the pandemic and skipped out on its usual farmers markets, instead focusing entirely on its CSA business and donating produce to the community. It expanded its CSA membership from 30 to 100 and expects to keep those numbers this year.
“It actually got people to try new varieties of food, because most of it was already planted out in the fields,” says Growing Home urban farm site manager Fred Daniels. “Some people who probably didn’t like arugula or didn’t like kohlrabi, they got to experiment with it. Our team did an amazing job with outreach, coming up with recipes for everything that was going in the boxes. People got to eat some stuff that they probably wouldn’t have tried.”
Growing Home’s CSA members normally pick up their boxes from the farm stand or farmers markets, but the farm started delivering the produce last year and will continue the service this year. Green City Market is also continuing the delivery and curbside programs it launched last year.
“We had a lot of people who shared with us how important that was,” Moody says. “Everyone’s hungry to get back to the farmers market, but some people are just not in the place because of their own health or the health of those they live with.”
Nichols Farm also started offering online ordering and home delivery last year. Alongside a boom in CSA membership, those sales helped make up for lost revenue from selling to restaurants, which normally accounts for 50 percent of the farm’s business.
“We embraced [online sales] right away last year when they closed the markets in the spring and it took off right away,” Nichols says. “It’s been a good addition.”
Safety protocols continue to pose a challenge for farms and markets, particularly restrictions on customers handling produce. Nichols says he needed 10 employees working instead of the usual five at many of his busier markets because staff need to select and bag everything.
“Sales were good, but it was not without a lot of effort,” he says. “I hope they ease some restrictions this year. As long as people aren’t allowed to touch their products, that means you have to run a farmers market more like a deli. It’s such a different ball game when people can grab and choose their own stuff versus you having to do that for them.”
The ban on serving prepared foods at the Evanston Farmers’ Market was lifted partway through the 2020 season, and Gorman says she hopes 2021 sees more easing of restrictions.
“I would like to see us put out some tables so people have a place to eat,” she says. “I’d like to see us allowing more families to come back and do our kids’ club and music. It’s just a part of the market that makes it that much better.”
Still, some of the restrictions created new opportunities. The Lincoln Square Farmers Market needed to rely on volunteers for the first time last year to help with managing capacity and ensure that shoppers were wearing masks and keeping socially distanced. The enthusiasm of the volunteers led the Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce to offer another way for people to support the community, starting a Friends of the Market program where members donate $50 to $200 to support the market’s operations and receive swag and discounts at local businesses.
With less of a need to cook at home or look for alternatives to the grocery store this year, some customers might not return to the farmers markets. But others will have formed a new appreciation for local farms. Moody says that between 2,000 and 3,000 people experienced the Green City Market for the first time last year, either in person or through the delivery service, and she hopes they’ll remember that local farmers were there for them when they needed them.
“The biggest thing we can do is really communicate with our growing community and help them understand how impactful it is when they shop from the farmers market,” Moody says. “Also when you taste good, real food it’s hard to go back.”