It just wouldn’t be summertime in the Midlands without farmers markets and its rows of local growers stocking makeshift booths or the tailgates of pickups with brightly colored garden treasures. From the familiar tomatoes, sweet corn and flowers to jams, meat, baked goods and crafts, you never know what you might find, or who you’ll meet, as you stroll through the area’s markets.
Farmers markets are not only a family tradition for many but have also become a vital source for healthy food for communities from one end of the country to the other. And even though many markets were curtailed during 2020 out of COVID-19 health concerns, they’ve since emerged and have remained an important supplement to grocery stores and big box retailers, to say nothing of a tourist draw and a centerpiece of the live, work, play environment.
According to The Conversation.com, there are roughly 9,000 farmers markets in the United States, and many experienced their strongest sales ever as a result of rising food insecurity and grocery shelves remaining bare during the pandemic. Markets’ fresh fruits and vegetables also play a vital role in supplementing the diets of low-income families, who often live in urban food deserts. As the Farmers Market Coalition notes, 2020 market purchases using SNAP benefits increased 40% compared to 2019 receipts.
Market managers like Sheryl Garst, CEO of Council Bluffs Farmers Market, are upbeat about participation numbers and the atmosphere, augmented with different types of programming.
“Farmers Market Council Bluffs is not just a farmers market, but a wonderful community event with live music, prepared food, and free kids’ activities,” she said. “The beauty of our market is it slows down time in a wonderful, national award-winning public space. It’s truly a Mayberry feel in the backyard of Omaha.
“Our base is produce and baked goods, of course with gluten-free, vegan and protein options trending. It’s been nice to see more craft vendors for specialty baby items, soaps, candles, woodcrafters and jewelry. The majority our vendors are Iowa-based such as Hidden Hollow Farm and Homebound Coffee.”
Now in its 12th season, Council Bluffs’ market has grown to 76 season-long and drop-in vendors displaying their wares every Thursday evening from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. starting in May and running through the last Thursday in September. The market is located in Bayliss Park at 532 1st Ave.
“New this season is weekly free yoga,” Garst said. “We’ve also added additional family tables with bright umbrellas in the center of our market. That’s such a simple item, but the public is really enjoying them as it encourages lingering and friendly camaraderie.”
The Bellevue Nebraska Farmers Market operates on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon through mid-September in Washington Park at 20th and Franklin streets. It is enjoying heavy traffic thus far in 2022, as people flock to grab produce, grass-fed beef, farm-fresh eggs, honey, maple syrup, salt-free spices, ethnic food items, coffee, baked goods and pies, healthy dog treats and many more crafts and prepared food items.
Carol Blood, marketing manager, said the 10-year-old market has flourished the past six years under volunteer management, which stayed in touch with consumer and vendor needs.
Blood noted that it can be hard to compete with larger markets, but the Bellevue market is holding its own.
“We are still one of the top five markets in Nebraska,” she said. “To be frank, there is one volunteer who does everything, including social media. All of our vendor fees go into marketing.”
Blood said nowhere did the leadership and foresight of the volunteers shine brighter than during the height of COVID-19.
“Our market was open during the pandemic,” she said. “We handed out free masks, asked people to maintain appropriate distance, had special hours for pregnant moms, seniors and those with health issues.
“We also provide hand sanitation locations throughout the market. Our attendance was as good as it was prior and after the pandemic. This year, we have had exceptional traffic. People like our environment as it is very family- and dog-friendly. There is a playground, picnic shelters, a gazebo and it’s accessible for people with disabilities. Parking is also free.”
Industry watchers say there are benefits to farmers markets that go beyond access and entertainment.
“Supporting your local farmers strengthens your community and local economy. Farmers who sell direct to consumers receive 80 cents of each food dollar,” wrote Tara Dunker, educator with University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Food. “Farmers markets also offer foods that align with a healthy eating pattern […] Freshly picked, in-season produce is at peak flavor and nutrition.”
It doesn’t get any fresher than Wenninghoff Farms’ market. Located onsite at the third-generation family farmstead at 6707 Wenninghoff Rd., visitors buy their produce just a few yards from where it was grown.
“This is our 66th year of the on-the-farm market and we only sell here,” said Amy Wenninghoff, co-owner. “We’ve never missed a year since 1956. Through the pandemic, we were very busy as more and more people wanted to cook at home. Our bedding plant sales also saw steady growth this spring as people are turning back to gardening.”
The market is open Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“We grow most of the produce here at the farm, but we also stock items from other local vendors, including It’s All About Bees, Erick’s Enchiladas, Norm’s pork rinds, Jisa cheese, E-Creamery ice cream and cookies, Fontanelle Orchard cider and many more.
“We are expanding our kid zone area with activities and animals for the kids. We also will have a sample day on Saturday, July 23,
with our fresh-cooked sweet corn and lots of salsa, jellies and other items.”
Depending on time of year, there are also added attractions, Wenninghoff said.
“Our farm is open mid-April to mid-June with spring bedding plants,” she said. “The regular produce barn is open daily July through October. We also open on Small Business Weekend after Thanksgiving and offer Christmas gift baskets with all our jar items like jams, sauerkraut, pickles and our famous corn nuts.”
As popular as farmers markets have been, putting them on has not been without challenges. For vendors, the cost of fuel, fertilizer and pesticide, not to mention packaging, transportation and labor, have all gone up substantially.
Maggie Winton, marketing coordinator for Omaha Farmers Market, said even as the Old Market and Aksarben Village markets return to their pre-pandemic locations, farmers are unquestionably more strained.
“It’s no secret that COVID really affected local businesses, and our market is no exception,” she said. “Our vendors are all local farmers, growers, producers and artists, and they were all hit hard by the pandemic and related economic trends.
“A specific challenge we’ve seen recently is that our vendors have found it difficult to find the staff to help them. We’ve even had a number of vendors who have had to cut down on the number of markets they attend simply because they don’t have the staffing to help them.”
Winton said the response from the public, which has been consistently good over the past two years at the market’s temporary location, has been exceptional thus far in 2022. The Old Market location operates Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and Aksarben Village is open Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., May through mid-October.
“Attendance has been very good so far this year,” she said. “Our opening weekend, we had many vendors sell out of their product, and each weekend since then has been more of the same. Even with the warm weather, people still come out every weekend to support local farmers and producers, which is an amazing thing to witness.”
Best Is Yet To Come
Angelyn Wang, manager of the Village Pointe Farmers Market, also reported strong foot traffic, even though the season started slowly. Located at 17305 Davenport St. in the Village Pointe Shopping Mall, the market is open every Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. through Oct. 1.
“We have had a delayed start to the produce season and overall foot traffic was slow to begin,” she said. “Farmers around the area are being challenged with a crop shortage to a certain extent, due to the weather conditions before and during harvest season.
“But over the last few weeks, we have noticed an increase in foot traffic, more crowds of people and lines forming at our vendors. These are all great signs as we delve into the summer produce season.”
Village Pointe’s market, which is in its 17th year, enjoyed increased traffic last summer. This uptick in 2021 numbers has Wang optimistic for a brisk season this year.
“We are a true farmers market, so we prioritize farmers, even though we do feature nontraditional vendors such as local crafters, specialty food preparers and other non-farmer vendors every first Saturday,” she said. “We saw attendance last year increase from 2020 and we saw many new customers, especially young families, shop at our market.”
In addition to the usual collection of fruits and vegetables, Wang said Village Pointe has also incorporated more event marketing to attract shoppers, such as featuring live music from local performers every week. Market management has also continued to implement extra spacing to help soothe any vendor or patron jitters over health and safety.
“Our market booths are spaced out so that our vendors and customers have plenty of room to shop and feel comfortable in a crowd,” she said.