Vendors report slow sales this market season
URBANA – The frequent rains, gas prices and condition of the economy may all be affecting this year's farmers' market at Urbana's Lincoln Square Village.
The 100-plus vendor market draws people in search of a wide variety of fresh, locally grown, raised and made food, crafts from local artisans, fresh flowers and the music of local musicians. Like other farmers' markets around the country, it's been growing in size and popularity, said Market at the Square Director Lisa Bralts.
But almost two months into the market's 29th season, farmers say it hasn't been enough to offset the pinch many are feeling on their pocketbooks.
Jon Cherniss of Blue Moon Farms said whether it's because of the weather, the economy or a combination of both, this season sales have been slow.
Blue Moon Farms, which is located just north of Urbana and produces a wide variety of certified organic produce and herbs, has been a staple at the market for 18 years now.
"We have had a cold and wet spring; now its 90 degrees and wet," Cherniss said. "The market is slow in my opinion right now. I am not sure if it is the weather, the economy or us."
Cherniss said that so far this season, sales of some of Blue Moon's key items are down 20 percent.
"And we have not raised prices on these items," he added. "It is a very long season, and every year we have good weeks and bad weeks. I hope only good weeks are left."
Bralts said that because of the cool, wet weather this spring, market farmers haven't had as much produce this time of year as they have in years past.
"But I do know that some of the vendors have done quite well so far this season," she said.
While Cherniss and other vendors have been feeling the effects of the weather, fellow market regulars Burt and Nancy Asbill of First Fruits Produce have been feeling the pinch of fuel prices.
The Asbill's Mahomet-based farm sells everything from fresh produce and herbs to farm-raised chicken and turkey, honey, jams and salsa.
"A lot of times (farmers) have to use diesel fuel," Nancy Asbill said. "Our costs have gone up tremendously. You have to somehow get some of it back, so you might charge a quarter more or something, but people don't (always) understand that."
The farmers aren't the only ones at the market feeling the effects from rising fuel prices, however.
One month into the Market at the Square's 2008 season, Bralts has noticed a new form of competition over parking spaces.
On June 1 "almost every available space on our bike racks was full," she said. "I think people are weighing the cost of gas and time to go 'traditional' grocery shopping."
And saving time traveling to stores, and money on the gas that it takes to get there, allows farmers' market patrons to spend in the area they feel is important – the type of food they buy.
"I've had patrons mention to me that if they're going to pay a high price for food, then they want to buy it directly from the farmer because they have the added bonus of knowing where it came from," Bralts said.
Along with the desire to support local farmers, many shoppers come to the farmers' market for the wide variety of natural and organic foods, which, according to market regular Iris Russell, gives the Market at the Square an edge over conventional grocery shopping. Russell, of Jacksonville, has been coming to the market for 28 years now.
"It's a good buy all around," Russell said. "The advantage (over the grocery store) is the produce is grown locally. There's the option of organic, and I think that for the money, the freshness and quality outweighs" the alternative.
Stan Schutte of Triple S Farms has found one area where rising costs have most likely helped his business rather than harmed it: food demand.
Triple S Farms sells naturally grown meats and produce on Saturdays at the farmers' market. And Schutte said that, if anything, the increased cost of food at the grocery store has helped his sales.
"We're more in line with what's in the store," Schutte said. "That has probably helped some, but our customers are pretty savvy. They know what (quality of food) they're getting."