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Farmers markets in Chicago adapted with preorders and no-touch shopping during COVID-19. Here’s what they’ll look like as Illinois reopens.

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 6/4/2021 Hannah Herrera Greenspan, Chicago Tribune
a person standing in front of a produce stand: Durrell Robertson, left, and Kenyana Walker, with Chicago Botanic Garden/Windy City Harvest, pack mustard greens for a customer at the PCC Austin Farm Stand in Chicago's Austin neighborhood on June 3, 2021. Farmers markets in the Chicago area are starting up again in 2021 with looser COVID-19 restrictions compared to 2020. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune Durrell Robertson, left, and Kenyana Walker, with Chicago Botanic Garden/Windy City Harvest, pack mustard greens for a customer at the PCC Austin Farm Stand in Chicago's Austin neighborhood on June 3, 2021. Farmers markets in the Chicago area are starting up again in 2021 with looser COVID-19 restrictions compared to 2020.

Orange you glad farmers markets are back this season?

Produce lovers and farmers alike are celebrating the full-fledged return of farmers markets in the Chicago area this year. Not only are they beginning on schedule, but with COVID-19 restrictions lifting in Chicago on June 11 along with the rest of the state, farmers markets are once again serving as a place for neighbors to connect as a community.

a group of pink flowers: Radish and asparagus for sale at Marengo's Nichols Farm and Orchard's booth at Daley Plaza City Market on June 3, 2021. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune Radish and asparagus for sale at Marengo's Nichols Farm and Orchard's booth at Daley Plaza City Market on June 3, 2021.

And while it’s a relief for vendors whose livelihoods depend on a robust schedule of markets, the 2021 season debuts a little differently than its pre-pandemic format. Resilient farmers found new ways to reach customers, and pandemic adaptations such as preordering for easy pickup have proven useful even as capacity restrictions fall away.

a person standing in front of a produce stand: Durrell Robertson, left, and Kenyana Walker, with Chicago Botanic Garden/Windy City Harvest, pack mustard greens for a customer at the PCC Austin Farm Stand in Chicago's Austin neighborhood on June 3, 2021. Farmers markets in the Chicago area are starting up again in 2021 with looser COVID-19 restrictions compared to 2020. © Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune Durrell Robertson, left, and Kenyana Walker, with Chicago Botanic Garden/Windy City Harvest, pack mustard greens for a customer at the PCC Austin Farm Stand in Chicago's Austin neighborhood on June 3, 2021. Farmers markets in the Chicago area are starting up again in 2021 with looser COVID-19 restrictions compared to 2020.

One big change over 2020: Everyone can’t wait to get started.

“All of the markets that we attend opened on time this year, if not, early,” said Abby Schilling, owner of the Michigan-based Mick Klug Farm.

In Lincoln Square, for example, the North Side neighborhood market typically commences in June; this year, it’s been running since the first week of May, Schilling said.

“I think the biggest and most obvious difference is, at this time last year, (markets) weren’t open,” she said. “That is a huge change.”

While farmers markets were deemed an essential service and eventually allowed to resume outdoors in 2020, many were delayed or operated with major restrictions. City and state restrictions put the kibosh on special events, performances and the casual, lengthy meander from stall to stall, and many markets adopted a no-touch, walk-through format.

Some restrictions tied to COVID-19 will remain in place at markets in the city and suburbs, with most saying they will update the protocols throughout the season in line with city and state regulations. And despite the gradual reopening that has followed increased vaccination rates and dropping cases of COVID-19, vendors say there’s still a ways to go before things fully return to normal.

At the Naperville Farmers Market, customers can look forward to its largest operation yet, said market director Annamarie Bensfield.

With 19 new vendors, and 56 total, the market has offerings ranging from organic mosquito repellents, spices, microgreens and organic meats to sweet and savory baked goods.

“I’m really excited about the variety of new products that we’re bringing to the market,” she said.

This year, unvaccinated customers, volunteers, vendors and staff at Naperville Farmers Market must wear masks that cover the mouth and nose, following local health guidelines, Bensfield said. Masks will be optional for those that are fully vaccinated. Many other markets at press time still had similar restrictions in place, but most said they would continue to follow state and city guidelines as the season progresses.

While it’s still early in the season, sales have been down this year compared to pre-pandemic earnings, said Stephanie Dunn, founder and executive director of Star Farm, located in Back of the Yards.

Even in 2020, Dunn said the nonprofit urban farm improved its production numbers, as it has every year since it began.

“Last year, shoppers felt safer going to farmers markets, because they were outdoors, than shopping indoors at a really crowded supermarket,” she said.

Farmers found new ways to keep customers buying their produce, even if they couldn’t make it to the market in person. But Schilling and Dunn said getting through the pandemic was difficult, especially in the beginning.

“We sell to quite a few restaurants in Chicago, and so that part of our business obviously took a hit with restaurants open for carryout, not opening at all or open at capacity limits,” Schilling said. “So you know, that was definitely scary when we lost that.”

With spring market openings delayed, both farms turned to offering community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, which are typically sold in full or half-shares of a season-long subscription.

“The fruit and vegetables don’t stop growing. We have to harvest them,” Schilling said.

Demand for local produce was “huge,” Dunn said. Thankfully, Star Farm had infrastructure in place to deliver produce or adapt to the open-but-restricted farmers markets. At one point, Star Farm was delivering 320 CSA boxes each week while juggling four farmers markets.

“We were able to meet that demand, and we experienced a lot of growth,” she said.

That growth led to Star Farm’s latest plan, to open a food co-op in Back of the Yards that would host a shared kitchen, in which members could make baby food, popsicles and other products with the farm produce. Slated to open in late 2021 and orchestrated with the help of donations and community-based funds, the space would also have a communal dining area, small library, children’s play area, and a gallery.

Likewise, Mick Klug Farm is opening a farm stand June 21 in New Buffalo, Michigan, after learning many customers escape the city for a quick weekend trip across the lake and inquire about visiting the farm, which previously had no on-site retail.

Still, market organizers and vendors alike are looking forward to a flourishing market season, particularly with the chance to socialize more with the regular customers they enjoy getting to know.

“We just really would love people to come out and start the process of healing,” Bensfield said, “of everything getting back to normal and enjoying some really healthy and organically grown products.”

hgreenspan@chicagotribune.com

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