The 2021 farmers’ market season has already officially begun in some parts of the state. There are still plenty of cool-season vegetables available on the vendor tables, as well as freshly cut spring flowers and lots of herb and vegetable seedlings. Many of our local farmers have had the help of their local University of Illinois Extension Educator along the way. Illinois Extension supports farmers from a disease management perspective and generally helps farmers maintain a healthy crop from planting to harvest, and we are just as excited as the farmers to welcome spring and the farmers’ market season.

Neighborhood farmers’ markets are a great place to meet your friends, enjoy fresh baked goods and home-made food products, listen to some live music, as well as enjoying a cup of coffee while perusing the vendor booths. For most people who attend a farmers’ market, it is also a social event. But the best reason is that most of the food sold at the market is grown by farmers in your area. Our Extension Educators often do field days with farmers; provide local, hyper-relevant research; advise on variety selection, cover crops, weed management, and so much more. We have the chance to meet these dedicated famers and get a behind the scenes look at just how hard they work to bring local, fresh goodness to the community.

The fruits and vegetables local farmers offer have reached their peak flavor and ripeness without having to travel long-distances or sit in storage for long periods of time. Your farmers’ market also helps to support local family farms and keeps the money within your community. It helps to connect you with where your food comes from, enables you to talk directly with the farmers, and maybe ask how the food was grown. (Do they use pesticides or are they a sustainable farm?).

Within the market itself, you may see a large variety of produce being offered, from heirloom tomatoes and peppers to red carrots, purple cauliflower, cultivated mushrooms, local meats and eggs, and much more. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many markets in Illinois have registered for the Illinois Link/SNAP program, which allow cardholders access to SNAP-Eligible food products, such as breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and poultry, and dairy products.  Check with your local market to ask whether they have signed up for this program.

The COVID-19 guidelines that affected the 2020 seasonal sales at your local farmers market changed the blueprint on how markets will be designed and implemented for 2021. On March 29, 2021 the “Phase 4:  Outdoor Farmers Market Guidelines” were released and are available on the Illinois Farmers Market Association (ILFMA) website (http://ilfma.org/resources). This document covers general guidelines for market managers and vendors in Illinois as well as guidelines for customers that wish to attend their local market.  

Isn’t it time to reconnect with your community? Let’s get outdoors and enjoy the spring weather while partaking of the freshest fruits and vegetables at your local farmers’ market. I hope to see you there!

Laurie George, PhD is a University of Illinois Extension Educator on Local Food Systems & Small Farms, based in Southern Illinois, serving Bond, Clinton, Jefferson, Marion and Washington counties.