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By Anna Lothson
Walter Skibbe is like many farmers in the Midwest dealing with the cruel consequences of Mother Nature and who can't catch a break.
Skibbe felt an extra crunch two weeks ago when it was determined that the apples at his stand, which has been an Oak Park Farmers Market favorite for more than 20 years, were from a fellow Michigan vendor and not from his own orchards. This left Skibbe's stand being banned from the market for the following week.
Skibbe, who travels from his farm just outside Benton Harbor to come to Oak Park during the season, doesn't have much to say about the penalty, said he understands the reasoning and doesn't hold the market staff at fault. He does, however, think it's been a particularly tough time for farmers due to the unusual weather patterns and tough growing season. Because of this, he was hoping for a little leeway since it was still locally grown produce.
"It's kind of a unique situation," Skibbe said in a phone interview last week. "The weather this year has been tough. …This year is especially bad for us, bad for the help and bad for the customers."
Still, he and the Farmers Market staff understand each other's perspective and the issue came and went like any other weekend. Skibbe is among many vendors who have brought fewer crops this year, particularly the fruit vendors who fell fate to an unseasonably late frost during the early part of the growing season.
"There's been a lot of hardships. That's the truth of it," Skibbe said. He grows items like asparagus, blueberries, plums, grapes, raspberries and blackberries. Fruit has particularly suffered this year. "This is the only market I go to. I have to stay home to run the farm the rest of the week. It's hard to be away from there. …It's just an unusual year and I'm paying the penalty."
Some farmers market requirements call for the food and goods to be locally grown and made only in the area, but Oak Park's guidelines state that goods must come only from the vendor itself. The market staff does spot checks periodically and when Skibbe was questioned he told the truth.
Jessica Rinks, manager of the market, explained the ordinance is designed to ensure customers know exactly where the products are coming from. It also sets a standard and fair system for the vendors to follow.
"I think it's a foundational principle [of the market]," Rinks said. "You can know as a customer that if you buy from a farmer you know that you are buying items that are not from a wholesaler. We want the customer to be confident in what they are buying, which is why the rules exist."
From a customer standpoint and a market philosophy, Rinks said it isn't easy to make a decision about how to deal with loyal vendor in this particular year, but said other vendors have had similar situations and have chosen not to attend every week due to low crop yield.
"We definitely sympathize with this situation. This type of crop loss is really unheard of," she said.
. Discussions about reviewing the rules have come up as a result, but in this instance, the staff decided a small penalty would be fair. "We decided that since the rules are stated in the ordinances, we decided we would just stick with the rules. We weren't going to allow for any resale of apples."
Regardless of the tough year, Skibbe was back at the market last weekend and was greeted by his hearty base of customers. He's set to be back this weekend for the last market of the season on Saturday that features the stone soup event where food from local vendors is used in large soup pots to be passed out free to customers. Fair warning, though: It runs out quick.