Posted May 14, 2021
Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the shopping experience at Chicago-area farmers markets, and as the 2021 season kicked off this month, vendors and organizers will continue to employ safe shopping standards. As restrictionson outdoor events ease, markets hope to sustain the high interest in local agriculture that led to record sales in 2020.
The crisis pushed the start of the 2020 season to June as markets made operational plans that placed safety at the forefront. Organizers required masks and set up entrance checkpoints with one-way traffic. They maintained tight capacity limits, prohibited eating and drinking on site, and canceled special events. There were no chef demonstrations, kids’ activities, or live music. Shoppers waited in long lines at the entrances and booths and couldn’t touch or select their own produce. Yet despite these restrictions and stripped-down amenities, the markets thrived.
“Most if not all of my vendors said it was the best year we’d ever had,” says Downtown Evanston Farmers’ Market manager Myra Gorman.
Some farms decided to skip the 2020 markets or, anticipating lower demand, cut back on their plantings. But grocery store disruptions, a spike in home cooking, and the addition of new services to make shopping easier resulted in farms making up most of the sales they’d lost from selling directly to restaurants, or from early closures.
“We were kind of taken by surprise last year, because early in the year we didn’t know what to expect. So we held back a little bit,” says Todd Nichols, owner and manager of Nichols Farm & Orchard in Marengo. “This year we bumped up everything a little bit with the anticipation of a good year.”
Last week, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot updated guidelines for farmers markets, allowing the outdoor bazaars to operate at 25 percent capacity or 15 people per 1,000 square feet. Green City Market opened in May in Lincoln Park, still requiring masks and with its capacity limited to 500 people. That’s a big improvement over last year, when only 100 people at a time could shop, a struggle for an event that would draw 7,500 to 10,000 people on a typical pre-pandemic Saturday. Daily attendance last year typically hit about 5,000. Yet the shoppers who did attend spent more money, doing more of their shopping at the market to avoid making trips to the grocery store.
“It was really those super-committed shoppers coming through, because they knew they were waiting in line a little bit,” says Green City Market executive director Mandy Moody. “People were doing a lot of shopping at the market and increasing their purchasing, which was phenomenal because the farmers were really grateful to have that support.”
Green City Market cut its Wednesday Lincoln Park market last year, but that’s returned this season with programming including grab-and-go kids’ activities and chef Q&As that started with Beverly Kim (Parachute,Wherewithall).
“We’re excited to bring more of the community vibe back to the market,” Moody says. “We’re getting closer and closer to getting back to normal.”