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Want fresh veggies? You might not find them at a farmers market

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It wasn’t a bad day of work for Michael and Deborah Skowera. The Granville growers pitched a tent near La Salle’s baseball diamond and sold some eggs and homemade jams. Not that there was a lot of competition.

Of the 17 stalls at the La Salle farmers market on June 4, most were hawking crafts, baked goods or fast-cooking foods such as dried pasta, rather than fruits, vegetables or starter plants. Only two other vendors were competing with the Skoweras for produce customers.

“The professional produce growers are fewer,” Michael observed. “You might have home gardeners who come and sell their surplus — but they show up once and when they’re gone, they’re gone.”

Farmers markets also are going away, at least in the traditional sense of the term.

When the Skoweras began selling produce 30 years ago, a farmers market was just that — comprised of farmers making a side living by selling their freshest produce on the road. These days, it’s possible to go to a farmers market and not find any produce vendors at all.

Katherine Koyak, economic development director for the city of La Salle, put on the June 4 market and was pleased with the turnout; but she acknowledged that produce is a diminishing, though still important, component of a farmers market.

Koyak did her homework before calling around for vendors. She dug through La Salle city archives and saw that past farmers markets, from 10 or more years ago, might have drawn a half dozen produce vendors. The more recent archives showed organizers would at most draw two or three such vendors, and that was if the organizer was lucky.

“We had many local businesses who wanted to be involved, but they’re not selling actually farm items,” Koyak said. “I think we’ve had only one or two produce vendors for the past several years.”

Jennifer Hoehn put together a May farmers market at the Westclox building but wasn’t able to get any produce vendors to come. Two growers initially committed, but were scared off by the forecast and ensuing rain.

Far from being disappointed, Hoehn called the show “an absolute success” and said customers flocked in expecting — and able to find — an array of consumer goods such as soaps, cosmetics and even Tupperware. In an age when the internet has made shopping an impersonal experience, farmers markets are a welcome and popular place to get locally-sourced goods, even if fruits and vegetables aren’t readily available.

“I believe there’s still that need for person-to-person contact with customers and that farmer’s market mentality is something we should never lose,” she said.

Weather may have kept growers from coming to Hoehn’s event, but there are other societal factors at work. Families are smaller than in generations past and Americans are cooking less. Those who do cook are increasingly having fresh ingredients sent to them from online services such as Blue Apron.

The upshot is consumers today have more and diverse access to farm products than in the days when a farmers market would usher in a big, hungry crowd — and farmers have taken note.

Along the way, farmers have questioned whether the returns are worth the effort. Skowera said working a farmers market is a hit-or-miss business dependent on weather — a big problem in spring 2019 — and many peers no longer pack up their flatbeds to sell goods in town.

Orchard owner Denise Boggio said farmers markets remain popular enough for her to move her goods but the events are too weather-dependent to be a reliable source of business.

“You spend a day getting ready to go, keeping it fresh-looking, but when you get there it’s 95 degrees out and nobody shows up,” Boggio said, noting that some items, such as lettuce, wilt quickly in the burning sun and have to be thrown away.

“I’d rather sell my produce out of my stand,” she said. “It’s so much easier than packing it up, hauling it out and setting it up.”

Boggio isn’t the only grower reluctant than take their shows on the road.

“I’ve seen the number of vendors who are selling fresh produce decline over the years and the attendance at our markets has also sharply declined,” said Becky Clinard, former economic development/tourism coordinator for Oglesby. “We lost the larger vendors after about three to four years and in their place we’ve picked up the hobbyists or those with surplus veggies in their home gardens.”

Farmers markets are unlikely to vanish completely because there are some venues where produce simply isn’t going to sell. As Skowera explained it, growers can try working an all-day music festival but will find most attendees won’t lug around bags of produce.

“You don’t go strictly to an entertainment festival because if people are going to listen to a rock concert they’re not going to carry around a watermelon.”

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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Tom Collins is the NewsTribune Senior Reporter. He can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com.

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