The food at farmers markets stands out for its freshness and quality, but the personal interactions among producers and customers deliver even more value to the experience.
Emily Drilling, who with her husband, Andrew, owns Harvest Moon Organics south of Cadott, noted how meeting people is an important part of why they sell their chicken, pork and eggs at the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market in Phoenix Park.
“It just creates the relationship between the consumer and the farmer that I think is really important,” she said. “And I just enjoy the relationships you form, the bonds you form with your customers. It’s also a good way to bring back the local economy, and bring back the smaller communities and keep the money local.”
At the farm, the Drillings also have The Old Laughing Lady General Store, where they offer their own products and those of other local farms.
Farm Doc Microgreens has benefited greatly from the opportunity for owner Dan Czelatdko to meet people at farmers markets.
“I pretty much built my business on them,” he said of the markets. “Without them I probably wouldn’t have Farm Doc Microgreens.”
Czelatdko is a chiropractor and board-certified nutritionist at Chippewa Valley Wellness in Eau Claire.
He started Farm Doc Microgreens after his patients asked for more healthy options to incorporate into their diets. Microgreens are the seedling of the sprout of the plant. They can have up to 40 times the nutritional components, including vitamins C and E and antioxidants, as their full-grown counterparts, research has shown.
Czelatdko also sells his products through groceries and to restaurants.
Farmers markets can be found across the state as well as the nation. More than 8,600 farmers markets currently are registered in the USDA Farmers Market Directory, according to farmersmarketcoalition.org, and the Farm Fresh Atlas has 192 listings for farmers markets in Wisconsin.
Paul Kaldjian, a UW-Eau Claire professor of geography whose courses include the geography of food, said farmers markets “have a way of shortening this food chain or food system so you have new, which are actually really old, opportunities for producers of agricultural goods to skip a whole bunch of middle people and a whole bunch of middle processes and get straight to the citizens.”
The Eau Claire area is in a good position to see how the food chain can be shortened in that way, Kaldjian pointed out.
“I think we are especially well-situated to make eating locally and regionally a part of our daily life, not to make it only something for the affluent or the privileged or the hipster or something like that,” he said, adding that in this region “the boundaries between urban and rural are really, really permeable and fuzzy.”
As a part of that, the markets make it easier for customers to find and work with producers, such as a butcher who handles locally raised animals.
“Markets are a place where the relationships between producer and customer start and perhaps develop from there,” Kaldjian said.
That has certainly been true for the Drillings at Harvest Moon Organics.
“You’re there, they get to meet you and then they get to see the products that you sell and then people reach out to you,” Emily Drilling said. “Maybe they want to come out to the farm and do a farm visit.”
The importance of establishing that relationship is that they know not just the product but Harvest Moon Organics’ entire operation.
“When you buy direct from the farmer, you get to know them,” she said. “They’re not just buying the pork, they’re buying your farming practices, what you’re doing for land conservation.”
Similarly, Czelatdko found that the markets gave potential customers “the opportunity to meet me and see who the person is behind producing the actual product.”
Customers also will find the microgreens are as fresh as possible.
“We harvest the day before, so you’re getting stuff that’s just basically less than 24 hours old, and you’re able to eat the food as fresh as possible, utilizing the nutrients still within it,” Czelatdko said.
Of the varied offerings from the approximately 75 vendors at the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market, the largest segment features produce. Market manager Deidra Barrickman estimates the number at a little more than half.
“I think that that’s something that’s really been a basic part of farmers markets through the years, so it really is very important to have a good showing of vegetables and berries at farmers markets,” Barrickman said.
Those seeking local products at the park also will find items such as meat, fish, ice cream, baked goods, egg rolls, and salsas and chips.
The pandemic has affected crowd size at the Downtown Farmers Market, Barrickman said. But producers have found reason for hope so far this season.
“I have been talking to the vendors, and their sales seem to be doing well because the people that are going to the farmers market are coming and they are purchasing, so they have a list in mind, they have ideas in mind,” Barrickman said. “They’re not just there shopping around or there for social reasons.”
Kaldjian and student researchers found in a 2016 study that more than 4,500 adults on average attended the Saturday market in a 5½-hour period from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. In addition, the number of children there approached an average of 800 a day.
The social aspect of farmers markets surely has contributed to that popularity, as evidenced by some of the other activities that have sprung up in the area, including art displays and performances.
In fact, Barrickman noted a Downtown Farmers Market survey in about 2008 asked visitors for the main reason they attend. “No. 1 was the fresh produce, but No. 2 was the socializing, and it was a pretty close number,” she said.
Kaldjian offered a gentle reminder, though, that those who enjoy talking with people at farmers markets, as he does, be cognizant of the fact that they may be at times be unintentionally impeding business.
“The farmers there need to sell their produce,” he said. “They’re not there to help us with the social scene, to provide entertainment for us. They’re there to make a living and to be able to meet their household needs. And I think that is one of the things that we somehow need to keep in mind: that the farmers there make this form of entertainment and social fulfillment possible, but in the end that’s not why they’re there. They’re there to be able to make a living.”
Positive thinkingA potential positive effect of the pandemic might be to change dining habits for the better. That is, those who have come to rely on dining out and processed or pre-packaged items might see value of local food prepared at home.
“It’s conceivable but it’s still just conjectural at this point,” Kaldjian said, “but we may see some longer term changes where people say, ‘You know what, there is a dissatisfaction with the conventional and global food system, and there are some real widespread benefits to looking at how our neighborhoods can provide us with foodstuffs.”
Barrickman echoed that point.
“It’s good to think about and take care of ourselves, depend on ourselves and not depend on someone that’s a couple thousand miles away to produce food that we could be producing right here,” she said.
And meet their neighbors at the same time.