Farmers’ Markets Provide Fresh Fare and Fresh Air
Every Saturday morning from May through October, Craig Schaafsma wakes up at 3 a.m. An hour later, he heads north from his St. Anne farm, his truck packed with fresh-cut flowers and mixed bouquets.
Schaafsma arrives on Division Street in downtown Chicago about 90 minutes later and begins setting up for what he says is always “a lively day of selling flowers and connecting with friendly people.”
The Division Street Farmers’ Market serves as one of dozens around the city and hundreds around the state that attract thousands of people every spring through fall. Some attendees walk leisurely around the markets smelling and squeezing the produce. Others are on a mission, heading straight for the fruit and vegetables from their favorite vendors. But everybody looks for the same thing – freshness. And farmers’ markets across Illinois deliver.
Yescenia Mota oversees the operations of many of the farmers’ markets in Chicago as part of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events staff. She says the markets play an important role in the life of the city, the consumer and the farmer.
“Our farmers’ markets are a destination,” Mota says. “They’re a place where people go to find fresh food and other locally grown items. Our farmers are resources for the consumers not just in providing those products, but in terms of sharing their passion for growing and preparing food that tastes good and is good for you.”
That educational aspect remains critical because residents in many parts of the city don’t have access to fresh food, and some don’t have stoves to cook it on. “There’s a lot of food insecurity across the city,” Mota says. “And though farmers’ markets can’t solve that problem, the farmers play an important role in addressing it because they’re enthusiastic educators who connect with the consumer. When you meet the person who grows your food, it makes a difference.”
Schaafsma, who with his wife, Julia, has been selling flowers at farmers’ markets across the state for 38 years, says the connections go both ways.
“People enjoy learning about where their food and flowers come from,” he says, “and I get the pleasure and satisfaction of selling the products that I grow to the people who will actually be enjoying them.”
Market organizers like Mota and others across the state work hard to ensure the satisfaction of the vendors. “The markets are a source of livelihood for the farmer,” she says. “This is their business. This is how they support their families. So we want the markets to meet the farmers’ needs as well.”
Farmers’ markets offer an additional benefit. “They add energy to the area and can even activate a neighborhood,” Mota says, “because they offer a comfortable environment that brings people together.”
Steve Phillips has seen it firsthand. Every other Thursday the COUNTRY Financial representative visits Daley Plaza as part of the company’s sponsorship of the city’s farmers’ markets. Like other COUNTRY representatives who visit neighborhood markets across the city, he engages with farmers and shoppers alike.
“There is a great atmosphere at the markets,” Phillips says. “There is a loyalty and camaraderie between the farmers and the public that you can just see when you’re there.”
He explains that shoppers have a chance to ask farmers questions, and farmers, in turn, are happy to share their knowledge with consumers. By offering access to fresh products and the people who grow them, the markets support the local food movement and environmental stewardship.
COUNTRY, for its part, offers a sustainable and popular way for shoppers to get their purchases home. Every year since 2008, they have given away thousands of student-designed canvas bags, and nearly $20,000 in scholarships to the winning student designers at farmers’ markets across the city.
Freshness draws the crowds to farmers’ markets, but just how fresh is “fresh?”
“The benefit of buying from our markets is that you know your purchases have been cultivated, harvested and cleaned by the farmer you meet, and that the products have been picked just 48 hours before,” Mota says.
For Schaafsma, it means picking from his 25 acres of sunflowers, gladiolas and two dozen other varieties on the Thursday or Friday before he heads to Division Street. The work may seem hard, but he considers it well worth his time and effort.
“Visiting the markets is like going to see old friends every week,” Schaafsma says. “You get to know them and the occasions they’re buying for. There’s a personal relationship along with a business one, which makes it very satisfying work.”
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Daley Plaza Farmers Market, the longest-running in Chicago, takes place on Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 50 W. Washington St. The city counts approximately 50 farmers’ markets located throughout the neighborhoods on different days of the week. For more detailed locations and schedules, visit cityofchicago.org.
Not in Chicago? No problem. Illinois ranks third in the nation for the number of farmers’ markets. Find one near you at agr.state.il.us/markets/farmers.