As the 61st Street Farmers Market came to life Saturday morning, friends greeted each other, vaccination anecdotes were exchanged, and people hugged. It was Hyde Park’s first outdoor farmers market of the year.
The 61st Street Farmers Market was launched in May 2008 by Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., “to bring fresh, organic, and sustainably raised foods from regional producers to the Woodlawn neighborhood and to provide educational opportunities to learn about food preparation, healthy eating, and sustainable agricultural practices,” states the organization’s website.
“The vendors last year had a really good year,” Connie Spreen, a founder of Experimental Station and its current executive director, said. “So, they are happy to be back because they are expecting another really good year.”
“We have our lineup of all the regulars that we had last year, plus Phoenix Bean, who joined us this year,” added Spreen.
“We are excited about that. They have kind of been wanting to join the market for the past couple of years, and finally did.”
“We will have a new baker called Yashica's Treats and she’ll be starting in the next few weeks. She’s a Southsider,” said Spreen.
Among the 23 vendors selling goods at the market Saturday morning was The Urban Canopy, an organization founded in 2011 “to create a more sustainable and equitable food system in Chicago,” according to its website.
“(Urban Canopy has) been a long time participant of the Farmers Market,” said market regular and Woodlawn resident Mariam Franklin as she and her family looked over the produce at Urban Canopy’s stall.
“And they are right over there at 75th and Racine. I have not been, but I will now; I just found out they are right in the community.”
“It’s good to see the neighbors out, the community out. It’s a nice day. It’s just good to see people,” Franklin added, as she looked around.
“We are a small urban farm,” said Joseph Taylor, one of two farm employees working Urban Canopy’s stand as he described the business.
“Our farm is a little under two acres and we are doing intensive vegetable production on like an acre and a half of it,” said Taylor.
“Our crew has mostly been vaccinated. Exciting, hoping that things stay on track,” he added.
The COVID pandemic brought a lot of trepidation to the world of farmers markets last year, with vendors, farmers and hosts unsure how it would play out..
“Last year (the vendors) were really worried at the beginning of the season because the farmers markets couldn’t start,” said Spreen.
“And this year, because everyone is familiar with COVID and familiar with the regulations and the restrictions, the city was able to do the permitting in a much more, you know, regular fashion. And so, permits were out on time.”
“So, none of that worry that the farmers had last year, they had this year.”
“And what happened (last year),” continued Spreen, “was, because people were so uncomfortable going to grocery stores, they came to the farmers market and they bought a lot, and they bought for other people.”
“So a number of farmers reported 20% increases in sales (during 2020) over 2019, and we had our best year for attendance. So, they were very happy last year,” Spreen added.
“We are thrilled to be back,” said Karem Sengun of Garfield Park’s Earnest Earth, echoing Spreen.
“This is our third season here,” Sengun continued. “This is the only one (farmers market) that we are doing.”
Sengun, who came to Chicago from Turkey and likes to cook added, "We try to cultivate intensively and responsibly. We grow peas, carrots, fava beans, I grow a fair amount of things that I remember from my grandma’s kitchen.”
As Sengun spoke, Johanna, a Hyde Park resident, walked up and said to him, “I rushed to get here.”
I asked her, “Why the rush?”
Johanna replied, “Because he has the best lettuce, it’s delicious. So, yeah. I was really excited to get some.”
In 2009 Experimental Station launched the Link Up Illinois program which, through Link and Link Match currency coupons, doubles the value of SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, which are available through beneficiaries’ Link cards, for the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.
According to Experimental Station’s website, Link Match programs, when combined with targeted outreach efforts, “ have dramatically increased Link purchases at farmers markets, which nearly vanished when “food stamps” shifted from physical stamps to electronic bank cards”.
Saturday morning, Link card holders were lined up at the entrance to the market, purchasing Link and Link Match currency coupons from Cynthia Holsten, who manages the program at Experimental Station.
“This is what Experimental Station does best,” said Connie Spreen as she looked around at the dozens of masked people shopping at the 61st St Farmers Market Saturday morning.
“We welcome people, offer hospitality, and create a space where a whole bunch of different kinds of people who would not normally find themselves in the same place, encounter one another, share the same space, buy from the same vendors, get to know the same people, and get to know each other.”
For more information about Experimental station and the 61st Street Farmers Market visit: https://experimentalstation.org/
Correction: This article initially misspelled the name of one of the farmers market vendors. It is Yashica's Treats, not Yeshika's Treats. The Herald regrets the error.