The weather may not feel like it, but November is indeed upon us. Which sadly means the end of outdoor farmers’ market season in this neck of the woods. The Champaign Farmers’ Market concluded its sophomore season on October 25, which means it’s now time to reflect on the past six months and dive into planning Season Three.
Our second season was not without its challenges, but we were very encouraged by a strong final month, thanks to our October Fruit & Veggie Bonus, which allowed us to offer triple SNAP benefits all season long. In just the first two weeks, we gave out well over $1,000, as much as we had given out across our entire first season. Overall we ended up giving out around $3,500 in matching funds across the season, thanks to our sponsors and two SNAP grants from the Link Up Illinois Program. I’ve blogged before about how research shows that every dollar spent at a farmers’ market translates into $2-3 for the local economy, compared to that same dollar spent at a larger chain grocery store. We were thrilled not only to help so many struggling families afford healthy food, but also to help boost sales for our farmers, and in turn Champaign-Urbana. The SNAP program also brought at least 50 new customers to the market, the bulk of whom became regulars.
We were also excited this season to see so many new vendors and the variety they brought with. We amped up the fruit with vendors like Okaw Valley Orchard. Rehoboth Blueberry Farm, and WE Products; welcomed new veggie vendors, such as Joy of Illinois Farm, The Seasonal Plate, Maddox Sweet Corn, PrairiErth Farm, and Legacy of the Land; and we were excited to see vendors like Meyer Produce, who were only with us last year for strawberry season, join us through the end of the season. We added Joe Joe’s salad dressings, Two Million Blooms honey, Skinny Sticks maple syrup, and organic grains from Brian Severson Farms. The Pop Stop was with us through the hot days with delicious fruity varieties, and of course we were so happy to have our regulars from last season back with us this year.
Cassie’s sampling tent was another big success this season. We started out with a simple operation, cutting up fruits and veggies to sample along with some bread or other baked goods. We saw kids coming back for seconds on radishes and dragging their parents out week after week to buy specialty veggies. Cassie then upped her game to create more complex recipes to highlight our vendors’ products, and collaborated with Chef Alisa DeMarco on our Secrets of a Seasonal Cook chef demos throughout the month of September. (We were also so happy to see downtown chefs shopping regularly at the market, and for next season we’re working hard to find more ways to connect our vendors with the local restaurant scene).The community support for the Market this season was also a big encouragement. We recruited 4 times as many sponsors as last year, and not only were were grateful for their financial support, but also for their help all season promoting the market, and actually coming out and shopping.
It’s a difficult time to run a farmers’ market right now. Markets around the state have reported dips in attendance and sales. Our first priority has always been helping our farmers get food to our community, and as we map out the next season, those goals remain the top priority: not just getting people out to the market, but getting them shopping and eating well. We struggled at times with attendance this year, at times due to bad weather or busy vendors who weren’t able to finish the season or competition for people’s time and dollars. But we feel confident going into our critical third season. For one thing, we were very fortunate a Farmers’ Market Promotion Program grant from the USDA to support the market over the next two years, and we were the only organization to Illinois to receive one. We’ve got exciting plans in the works for next year, and we can’t wait to see you there!