As the Midwest growing season reaches its peak and colorful produce makes its way to the Pilgrim Church parking lot each Saturday, Rachel Hahs, newly appointed chair of the Oak Park Farmers Market Commission, led her first meeting on July 14. She joined the commission in 2019 and played a significant role in managing the complex aggregation program at last year’s modified market.
“When I joined the commission, I was excited to be on a commission that’s working to support the people taking care of our land,” said Hahs as she took the reins. “I would like to see them succeed and support them. I am also excited to be a part of a fabulous, passionate community that loves their farmers market.”
As the meeting progressed, Kimball Ingram, market manager, was quick to mention that feedback from vendors suggests they are experiencing good sales volume at the Oak Park Market. He notes smaller vendors are often “down to just scraps” by late morning. When questioned by commissioners about the need for increasing their inventory to accommodate demand, Ingram said he believes vendors that are running out of product early are working to increase the amount of product available for sale.
Cameron Davis, Oak Park’s assistant director of development customer services and staff liaison to the farmers market commission, said he has had several conversations with vendors, and they are experiencing increased sales at all their markets, and they are “literally showing up with what they have” and trying to keep up with demand.
Village staff and commissioners also discussed the obvious dip in the number of vendors at the 2021 market as compared to years past. In 2019 the Oak Park Farmers Market hosted 28 vendors and the 2021 market has 23 participants. Though two vendors dropped out at the last minute, commissioners were quick to point out this represents a 20% drop and should be considered a notable shift.
Ingram agreed he sees the need for a flower vendor and an organic produce vendor to round out market offerings. While he has made efforts to source multiple vendors, the pandemic was not great for farming in general. Some vendors had been impacted by health issues and staffing shortages while others made creative adjustments in response to COVID-19. Longtime vendor, Tomato Mountain, moved to an online sales and delivery model in lieu of attending in-person markets.
“As I speak to all these vendors about this year, I’ll be honest I have my eye on next year,” said Ingram. “Because it is still a COVID year—as much as we want things to be normal it is still a wacky time. The goal of speaking to some of these folks, even if they don’t come this year, is to line them up so we have additional vendors that we can get next year.”
Ingram also said has started making vendor site visits. He visited K.V. Stover & Sons in Berrien Springs, Michigan as well as all three bread vendors participating in the market. He indicated all vendors are making bread and pastry products in the manner outlined in the village code. He addressed concerns over some fruit fillings being used in the pastries by announcing La Provence will begin using all-natural, hand-made preserves from Stovers in their products. Ingram is working to ensure La Provence and other market bakers have access to supplies from Stovers. Commissioners were happy with the resolution and praised the encouragement of partnerships between vendors.
There is ongoing interest among commissioners to make the part-time market manager position a full-time village staff position. Arti Walker-Peddakotla, village trustee and farmers market liaison, said FY2022 budgeting is starting and urged the commission to have these discussions “sooner rather than later” so their requests can be “heard and deliberated at the board table.”
The annual corn roast is set to return to market on Aug. 14 and commissioners were quick to offer their assistance to Ingram as he navigates this and other market events. Bake sales are also on the market schedule again. Eight non-profits are already signed up and other interested organizations can send a request to participate to email@example.com.
Davis also announced the Farmers Market Commission will return to in-person meetings next month.
The Oak Park Farmers’ Market is held from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday from mid-May through October. The market is located in the Pilgrim Church parking lot at 460 Lake St., one block west of Ridgeland Avenue.