MARKET WATCH: Winter Markets are (almost) a Wrap!

April 15, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Robin Schirmer

Farmers markets seem to have only two seasons:  Summer (in-season) and Winter (off-season), which doesn’t necessarily dovetail into the Midwest climate with its four distinct seasons.   So, though the trees have buds and we’re pulling out our summer wear, flip-flops, and visors, any farmers markets you’ll still find in the Chicago area are considered “winter” farmers markets.  With a few exceptions, not too many seasons ago, a winter farmers market meant a market that stretched into November and December.  

About six years ago, Churches’ Center for Land and People (CCLP), at the suggestion of long-time (and part-time in name only) director, Tony Ends, began sponsoring indoor winter farmers markets in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa congregations, including a few in the Chicago area.  Tony and his wife Dela farm sustainably as Scotch Hill Farm in Brodhead, Wisconsin, and offer a vegetable CSA, now certified organic and in their 16th CSA season.  They raise goats for manure for their vegetable beds and for milk, but soon found that the goats—which will eat anything that’s not nailed down—were getting the better end of the deal!  So over a decade ago, they learned to make double-milled goats’ milk soap, which helped the goats earn their keep by giving them a value-added product to realize a better return for the goats’ milk.  They taught other dairy goat farmers to make goats’ milk soap and created a guild of goats’ milk soap makers.  

Soon there were a number of farms producing this unique, non-perishable product, each with their own touch in shapes, sizes and packaging.  Tony recognized that there were other farmstead value-added products, such as syrup, meat, cheese, preserves, cider, wool and woolen products, that could be sold year-round, and also understood the need for small farmers to generate income during the off-season.     Most farmers he knew, himself included, took on off-season jobs to make ends meet or had spouses who kept off-farm jobs year-round.     The need for outlets to sell directly to consumers was apparent and CCLP’s Winter Farmers Markets were born.    The mission of these markets was to promote Economic Justice (for small farms and their rural communities), Earth Stewardship, and Community & Spirituality. 

Tony left the directorship of CCLP last summer before the 2009-2010 season of Winter Farmers Markets, so the season that has just concluded was done without his leadership—but still following his incredible vision.  CCLP partnered with Faith in Place for ten markets which concluded last Saturday with a lively market at The Castle, home to Beverly Unitarian Church on Chicago’s South Side. 

Three years ago, I started working with CCLP to increase the reach of the Winter Farmers Markets.  At the first board meeting I attended in late 2007, a board member suggested that this project might run its course as other organizations and venues saw the value of winter farmers markets and CCLP’s need to plant these markets would lessen over time.  This likelihood was viewed as a positive development.  It’s clear from the events of this past season that this has come to pass to some extent.  Here’s a brief recap of some of the farmers market expansions that have occurred in this and prior seasons:

  • Geneva Green Market has for three yeas held a year-round indoor farmers markets at Inglenook Pantry in Geneva; it’s continuing through May, Saturdays 9 to 1.
  • Green City Market continued its Wednesday and Saturday schedule in a large tent outside the Notebaert Nature Museum for November and December, then moved inside the museum for a schedule of seven Saturday markets between January and April; the last of those is Saturday, April 24, 8am to 1pm.  This was the second year for the January through April markets.  Rumor has it that they will continue weekly on Saturdays year-round next season; stay tuned.
  • Portage Park Farmers Market, which had its inaugural season last summer outdoors on Sundays held monthly markets indoors January through April; their final “winter” market is Saturday, April 24, 10am to 2pm.  Their regular season market will then move back to Sundays beginning in June.
  • Logan Square Farmers Market for the first time moved indoors to the Congress Theater to continue its weekly on Sundays late October through March.
  • 61st Street Farmers Market moved inside the Experimental Station for weekly markets in November and December.
  • Empty Bottle, a bar and music venue on the North Side, hosted monthly markets starting at noon December through March this year, catering to the crowd that isn’t generally awake yet when other markets are wrapping up. 
  • Kenosha HarborMarket moves from its spectacular harborside site into a nearby theater lobby for a continuation of its year-round market; still going Saturdays, 9am to 1pm, in case you’re up that way.
  • Lincoln Square Farmers Market polled its vendors and found that most would stick around for an additional month, so the oldest farmers market in the City kept going through November.
  • Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston has for 10 years held a wildly successful indoor/outdoor market on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
  • Several Chicago area congregations that have hosted CCLP farmers markets and were unable to get on our limited schedule this year took the ball and ran with it:  Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb, Ebenezer Lutheran Church-Andersonville, Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin, and North Shore Unitarian Church-Deerfield.  We’re hoping that more host congregations, once they’ve seen the set-up and developed a relationship with vendors, will accept that challenge. 

I take a strong message from the number and relative success of these markets:  If you build it, they will come.  “They” is both farmers and shoppers.   And because you—the shoppers—have proven to the farmers that you will come, the farmers are more likely to grow and store more root crops and apples, or invest in season-extending techniques (like hoophouses, hydroponics, aquaponics) and value-added production (like processing sauces, salsas, preserves and the like), so I’d expect these markets to beget more markets. 

Meanwhile, I think that the niche still exists for CCLP’s Winter Farmers Markets (which will be solely sponsored by Faith in Place next season) to create moveable feasts of indoor markets in churches and faith communities, looking for areas where there’s a pent-up demand and a congregation willing to commit time, space, volunteers, and publicity to embrace the original mission:  Economic Justice, Earth Stewardship, and Community & Spirituality.  If you know of such a place, please let us know!

See you soon.

Editor’s Note: Robin’s winter watch may be over, but her full time gig with Tomato Mountain Farm keeps a-goin’.  Expect to find Robin at many markets around the Chicago area selling organic vegetables, including Tomato Mountain’s renown early season tomatoes as well as Tomato Mountain’s all season salsas, jams and other products.