CHICAGO — The city keeps adding farmers markets, but many farmers say nobody bothered to ask them whether that’s a good idea.
Starting a farmers market has stopped being a good idea in broad swaths of the city, with market managers and farmers saying the city now is oversaturated with farm-fresh produce.
Farmers said they're stretched to the limit and won’t, or can't, add another market to their schedule, lacking not only the manpower but the product.
“They’re creating more markets, but they're not creating more of us,” said Crystal Nells of Indiana's C&D Farms. “Last time I checked, there's only seven days a week. We can only be so many places at one time.”
A trend toward many smaller markets spread across neighborhoods rather than large centralized markets is making the entire farmers market system in the city unworkable for them, farmers said.
"It used to be there was the Tuesday market, and that's all there was, and everybody came," said Nells. "You'd go to a market and make a lot of money. Now you've got to be at a lot of markets to make the same amount."
Mick Klug of Klug Farms in St. Joseph, Mich., said he just dropped one of Lincoln Square's two markets to focus on the biggest markets in the city.
Klug said he thinks there are now only about five or six of the 64 markets in the city that have the committed customer base and consistent sales to make it worth it for farmers like him.
Klug and other farmers consistently said they want to see 1,000 people coming every market day at a minimum for them to even start a conversation with a market manager about becoming a vendor. That’s a difficult proposition for many neighborhood markets that are now seeing 400 people at the peak of the growing season.
Hyde Park Farmers Market manager Eric Reaves said the market averages 300 people a week. He said he lost a farmer going into this year and is worried about what will happen if another pulls out.
“If we keep to three, we’re good. If we go to less than that, I’d be concerned,” Reaves said.
The Green City Market in Lincoln Park is one of the city’s busiest, with upwards of 10,000 people coming to buy from the 55 vendors every Saturday. The market’s director, Melissa Flynn, said she’s now frequently saying no to people who want help starting a market, particularly if it’s near Downtown or on the North Side.
“It is not a ‘build it and they will come’ sort of thing. It needs to go where there is already density and people are ready to commit their dollars,” Flynn said.
She said she thinks the North Side and Downtown are now oversaturated and even the underserved South and West sides should think hard before starting a new market.
Flynn said Green City is buying produce from farmers and selling it themselves at the Bronzeville Farmers Market until there is enough demand to support a farmer coming in and selling directly.
“We are a nonprofit; our farmers are not. They need to earn a living wage and have about six months a year to do that,” Flynn said.
Farmers said they need at least 1,000 people visiting a market for it to be worth their while. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
Farmers all said that demand in the city has largely plateaued — which jibes with national trends reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — and that rather than growing the pie of consumers, new markets often simply cannibalize the customer base of the older markets.
“We’ve gotten to a point that customers that regularly go to a farm market, just switch which market they go to when one opens up near them, and then they stop going to their ‘old' market,” said Tom Rosenfeld of Earth First Farms in Berrien Center, Mich.
Chicagoans are very neighborhood-focused, and if a market opens up two blocks away instead of 12, consumers will gravitate toward the one that's closer, said Patrick O'Hern, who co-founded West Lakeview's Ward 47 market, which debuted this year.
"In Lakeview, you're not going to go to Logan Square," said O'Hern. "You want to be within walking distance."
The city used to run more than half of the farmers markets in the city, but has dropped to 17 from 32 markets, shifting more over to the responsibility of neighborhood chambers of commerce that aren’t getting as much feedback about what’s happening at other markets.
At the same time, it’s become a lot easier start a new market.
Rudy Flores, director of the Lincoln Square Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce, said it's easy now for a chamber to get training to start a market.
Market managers said it’s tempting for new managers to skip steps requiring a survey of the market demand in the eagerness to get a community gathering space or a symbol of a high quality of life that a market often conveys.
Farmers said they’re looking more for those savvy market managers who get how something like Chicago’s wildly shifting weather can seriously damage their revenue.
Chris Covelli of Tomato Mountain in Brooklyn, Wis., said rain is the one of the farmers' biggest enemies on market day, and a couple of rainy market days in a row can destroy profits.
“Do you know what it’s like to do a week of work and show up and see that your check went into a puddle?” Covelli said.
He said even on good days, the cutthroat competition can sink a farmer, even with the best market manager carefully balancing the mix of vendors.
Covelli said he saw his weekly sales drop to $400 from $1,200 after other farmers caught on to the idea that they could mark up their tomato crop by turning it into salsa.
He said he’s dropped down to five markets from 25 and now only sells at markets to publicize subscriptions for weekly boxes of produce — customers who pay up front at the beginning of the season and reduce his financial risk.
The lower citywide demand for farmers markets seems to mirror a national trend. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
Farmers said the rural markets close to their farms are now becoming a safer bet than investing in the time and cost of driving into the city in the hopes of getting a higher price.
Jerry Boone of Froggy Meadow Farm in Beloit, Wis., said he has to cut his prices by 25 percent when selling at the market in Beloit, but money he saves on transportation makes it often a better deal.
He said there are probably 50 other farmers around his farm that sell at farmers markets, but who won’t come into the city because sales are too low.
Recruiting vendors for the Ward 47 market was "very, very difficult," O'Hern said. "We spent late April through June 1st dialing."
Out of a list provided by the city of 100 vendors, "three came through," he said.
To beef up their vendor ranks, some of the newer markets are becoming more street market than farmers market, relying more heavily on prepared food vendors, artisans and neighborhood businesses to fill booth space.
“There are so many farmers markets, having something unique is important,” said Gene Wagendorf, events and marketing coordinator for the Greater Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce, which started its market in 2016. “Listen to what the neighborhood wants.”
Increasingly, chambers and civic organizations are using markets as a branding tool — a way to signal that a neighborhood has a high quality of life or to highlight local businesses — and as a community builder, with markets evolving into places to gather and socialize.
None of those things requires a farmer to wake up at 2 a.m. and spend hours driving into Chicago from Michigan or Wisconsin to hawk carrots at what's essentially a weekly street fair.
As markets in Chicago become more about neighborhood identity than knowing where one’s food comes from, it begs this question voiced by Nells of C&D Farms: "Do you really have a farmers market?"