13 weeks down, 11 to go. We’ve hit the halfway point of Season 3 at the Champaign Farmers’ Market, and I’m just going to cut to the chase and say the season has surpassed all expectations. I’ll be honest, last year was a struggle. Attendance was down a little from the first season, a few new vendors who started the season full of excitement, didn’t finish out the summer with us. To top it all off, the weather did not make it easy on us, and the mere hint of rain seemed to scare off all the shoppers, even if that hint was over at 10 in the morning. So I started off Season 3 full of hope, but not without apprehension.
Fortunately, this season has taken off in ways I really couldn’t have imagined. First of all, thanks to a Farmers Market Promotion Program grant from the USDA, we were able to massively expand our advertising, branching into more radio, billboards, and print ads. Thanks to generous matches from sponsors like WDWS/WHMS/WKIO, The News-Gazette Foundation, Adams Outdoor Advertising, and Smile Politely, we were able to amplify those advertising dollars and get even more exposure out of the grant funds we had received. We heard from a number of customers how all of a sudden we were everywhere. Word was definitely getting out. This additional advertising didn’t just bring more people to the market. In fact attendance counts have been very similar to 2016, and slightly lower than our first season in 2015. But, what’s different this year is that patrons are shopping. A lot. Sales are up across the board. In May and June, we had vendors with sales numbers similar to August the year before. Hundreds of dollars more than they were making last year. Those sparse tables at the end of the market are a beautiful sight.
The other big difference: weather hasn’t been scaring away the crowds as much as last year. Granted, we’ve been luckier this year, only a handful of sprinkles and one or two little storms. But where those sprinkles would have kept shoppers at home last year, even the stormy days have been full of shoppers. In fact the last stormy day we had on August 1 was one of our biggest sales days all season. We’ve built a core group of shoppers, and the market feels more stable than ever.
We can feel a difference too. The atmosphere is buzzy, even when we don’t have extra programming. Last year we held drawing after drawing, theme market after theme market to draw out the crowds. This year, we’re so busy we don’t have time for extra programming every week! We certainly want to incorporate even more music and activities as we grow, but for now, it’s a great feeling that the market itself is a strong enough draw. Our Community Tent has been scheduling itself, with organizations approaching us rather than me chasing groups to schedule them. And best of all, the atmosphere with the vendors is an absolute delight. There’s a real sense of camaraderie, and it feels like we’re all really working together.
But by far the biggest and most exciting development is the continued expansion of our SNAP access program this season. We’ve now held four Triple Link Tuesdays, each one bigger than the last. We have now given out over $6,000 in matching funds, and the program has helped 131 households, 96 of which came to the market for the first time because of this opportunity, and we’re only halfways through the season! (For comparison, last year we had a total of 79 customers and 47 new customers all season long.) We’ve spoken with customers who drive from as far as Danville, Decatur, and Matoon not just for the Triple Link days, but even for our regular Double Link match. We see that customers are stocking up on Triple Link days and it’s helping them stretch their food assistance dollars through the end of the month and shop at the market for fresh food more frequently than they would have with no incentives. Not only has the program helped struggling members of the community afford more local food, but it’s also putting thousands of dollars into the pockets of our local farmers, which in turn is helping our local economy exponentially.The only downside of the program’s success is running out of grant funds faster than we expected, but it’s a challenge I’m very happy to encounter, and fortunately we were just awarded an additional $4,000 from Experimental Station as part of the LinkUp Illinois program. If the trends continue, the program will continue to grow in these last 11 weeks, helping everyone get even more fresh food through the fall.
I have so many people to thank for such a great season this year: our sponsors, Experimental Station and the Link Up Illinois program, our volunteers, our guest chefs who have made the sampling tent a treat all season, our fans and supporters who have helped get the word out about the market in general and the Link program, our shoppers, my fellow Land Connection staff, and our dedicated farmers who have made this one delicious summer. We’ve still got 11 more weeks of tasty local food and fun. Hope to see you there!