Meat meets with mixed results at Farmers' Market

Sales strong for one vendor;meat attracts more shoppers

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By ELENA LEVENSON

After 30 years of prohibition, meat debuted at the Oak Park Farmers' Market this summer at the booths of Wettstein Organic Farm (on the Elmwood side of the market) and Heartland Meats (on the Lake side). While the vendors report mixed results, Farmers' Market officials are enthusiastic about the new product.

Wettstein Organic Farm sells at the market once a month, but business is steady, according to owner Emily Wettstein. The Oak Park market accounts for around $1,800 per month of the Bloomington-based company's revenue.

The yield is "better than we expected," Wettstein said. "We had been coming up once a month and meeting at a different site...so it was a smaller number of people we were depending on." She and her husband had previously sold meat through the Seven Generations Ahead group, which pays membership fees to farmers who then send basketfuls of produce to a pick-up site each week.

"Now, there's a lot of people coming through and we can still email our people," Wettstein said. "It's a pretty good market, we feel, worth [our] coming up."

The Wettsteins sell a variety of meat, including beef, pork, lamb and chicken. They will next be at the market on Sept. 17 and Oct. 29.

"I would like to start taking orders for... organic turkeys this fall that would be available for pick-up next Thanksgiving," Dennis Wettstein said.

Although Heartland Meats' John Sondgeroth stressed that he's had a "great reception" in Oak Park, he also said that sales were not up to his expectations.

"It's not as good as I thought it would be," Sondgeroth said. "I think it would take a lifetime of business to support a family farm on it.

"For whatever reason, most farmers' markets that we go to, I don't see an avenue for the consumer to come every week and make it a dedicated time to buy products. It's more like, 'If I have time, if the moon is right'...we get repeat customers, but it's very hard on a weekly basis."

Sondgeroth said Heartland attended less than half as many markets this summer than it did two years ago, but revenue has increased.

While Sondgeroth declined to give exact figures, he said that Oak Park and Evanston are Heartland Meats' two best markets, and that Oak Park accounts for 15 percent of Heartland Meats' weekly sales. He sells vacuum-packed beef at the market every week.

"Overall, it's been a good experience," Sondgeroth said. "We've heard nothing but positive things about the meat, but we don't see hordes of people every week...most markets [have] so many people you should do very, very well, and I don't see that...but it's a new business, too."

Meanwhile, farmers' market officials are excited about the new item.

"I think [meat]'s an added-value item," market manager Nicole English said. "It's going to bring a lot of people who might not come to the market, who are looking for something special. And the people who do come to the market, they appreciate it because it's not the same kind of product you'll get from the grocery store. I think we will definitely do [meat] again next year."

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