Farmer Scott Koster and his son Corban, of Geneva Lakes Produce, made their way from Burlington, Wisconsin to Oak Park on a rainy Thursday last week. They were on a mission to support Colleen McNichols, Oak Park Farmers Market manager, as she took measurements of the streets set to host the COVID-19 modified market which opens May 30 at 7:30 a.m.
“I hope that people understand this is an incredibly tough year for agriculture,” said Koster. “We want people to utilize the Oak Park Farmers Market to eliminate a trip to the grocery store and limit their exposure to COVID-19.”
Consumers are emphasizing health and wellness in the age of COVID-19 and Koster knows his fresh picked produce is well-suited to boosting immune systems. Once markets were named essential in Illinois, Koster and his team worked quickly to put more plants in the ground to keep up with anticipated demand.
Unfortunately, more than half of the markets Geneva Lakes Produce participates in have been cancelled for the 2020 season leaving the producer with fewer places to sell. As a result, the dedicated shoppers frequenting the Oak Park Farmers Market have become even more valuable to independent farmers.
Vendors at the Oak Park Farmers Market are not subsidized by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and rely on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions and farmers markets to survive.
The local market’s leaders anticipate increased attendance at the Oak Park market this year as COVID has made people more sensitive to responsible food sourcing and some markets in the city have been cancelled. The farmers worry fear of long lines may deter people from attending the weekly market.
“Headlines about other markets have focused so much on lines that I am worried it will keep people away,” said Corban Koster. “Really though, any lines I have seen, even at the Evanston market, are fast moving and well organized. I expect the same will be true at the Oak Park market.”
Sixth generation Oak Parker and commuter farmer, Matt Rossow of Chanticlare Farm, has been waiting patiently for years to take a slot at the Oak Park Farmers Market.
“This is our hometown,” said Rossow. “We are excited to have a spot at this year’s modified market.”
From day one Rossow has been dedicated to selling directly to customers. The four-year-old farm is located on two acres of land in Aurora and employs just three people including Rossow’s wife, Mary. Chanticlare Farm participates in two markets annually and they have become his farm’s “bread and butter.” Rossow appreciates the seasonality, personal connections, face to face interactions they offer.
“It’s not good it took a pandemic to wake people up to holes in our food system, but less moving pieces means less can go wrong,” said Rossow. “Touch, smell and feel are part of any farmers market and the modified Oak Park market will get us closer to that.”
Known for salad greens and offering six varieties of garlic, including Russian Giant and Chestnut Red, Chanticlare Farm will be situated on East Avenue during the Oak Park Farmers Market. Truck size will determine the placement of other vendors. Commissioners will be on hand to help individuals locate their preferred vendors to minimize doubling back in the market.
Both Koster and Rossow want to participate in the online pre-ordering system, but noted it is both complicated and time-consuming to update the online shop in between planting and harvesting. Modified markets, especially those with added pre-ordering programs, increase staffing requirements at a time when farmers are not capable of making additional hires. Specifically, Koster expressed worry about long-time Geneva Lakes Produce customers who may not have internet access, while Rossow is concerned about knowing exactly how much produce he will harvest from Chanticlare Farm from week-to-week.
Despite numerous uncertainties, both farmers agree open-air, in-person markets are vital in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.
“A good market depends on both vendors and customers making a commitment,” said Rossow. “Oak Park is one of the best markets because they are producer-focused and have customers who show up rain or shine.”