By Dylan Kanner
On July 30th, I visited the Woodstock Farmer's Market and had the pleasure of speaking with marketing directors Keith Johnson and Kelly Kempf. What made that day even more special was that they were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Farmer's Market. Since 1982, Keith has grown it into an award-winning market through his passion for fresh local produce and his dedication to community health. The market started small on the western edge of the square with about 6-8 vendors. The number of vendors has gradually grown since then. Today, there are about 52 vendors. Impressive, right?! The substantial increase of vendors that Keith has seen since 1982 shows how successful and deserving Woodstock Farmer's Market has become. In 2005, the city of Woodstock gave them permission to extend the market around the square. "Once we went around the square, the spaces became much more equitable. There was no bad space because the square is such a beautiful place to have a market and because all the spaces are equally displayed. Once we went around the square, we probably filled up about half of the square in the first few years, then we filled up 3/4 of the square, and just a few years ago we finally filled the entire square." says Keith. At that point, Keith added, they even ended up getting additional space in front of the opera house and on Jackson Street because they didn't have the room for that many people until the city gave them extra room. Kelly also added: "The mayor and the city council have given us assurances that next year, if we want to grow more, they're going to shut down more streets for us. They have seen the value of us being around the square.
About 15 years ago, Keith started a winter farmer's market so that the Woodstock Farmer's Market could be open year-round. The farmer's market originally was open from June through September until they extended a month on each side of the season and added a winter market. The establishment of an inside area for the winter market began at our very own McHenry County Farm Bureau with the help of manager Dan Volkers. Keith was able to open his winter market at the farm bureau at a very reasonable rate and it remianed at this location for about 8-10 years. His market gradually outgrew the space because at this point he had over 10 vendors in there. Keith decided to move the location of his winter market to Building D at the McHenry County Fairgrounds as the number of vendors continued to grow. The winter market now has 32 vendors as of last winter.
According to Keith, there is a very formal process for someone who is trying to become a vendor at Woodstock Farmer's Market. You have to have liability insurance, naming the market as an additional insured. The application has to be reviewed by the board of directors for the market, which is made up of five vendor directors. Keith says the board is probably the most difficult thing that they do with the market because they have to decide who is going to be in the market. They're very careful with it and they take the process very seriously. They want quality vendors. They want vendors who produce their own products and they like to assure their customers that that's happening. Kelly had some points to add about the process as well. "I think that's our most important part - that all of our vendors produce everything you see in the market. Every item is approved. We go out to make sure that they are not only growing it, but they're growing it in numbers that match the market demand." Kelly says that if a vendor wants to bring a new product to market, she and Keith actually go out to the vendor's farm to observe how they are growing/producing the product. "A lot of people try to sneak into our market as a vendor without realizing we're actually going to come up to their house, knock on their door, and see what they're doing. This weeds a lot of people out." says Kelly. This process provides real quality and an assurance to other vendors that their neighbors are also putting in the work of growing their own product and bringing it to the market themselves. It seems that this sense of personal connection and self-sufficiency is what attracts customers to Woodstock Farmer's Market.
I mentioned to Keith and Kelly that I am from Algonquin and that we don't have a consistent farmer's market like Woodstock does. I then asked them if they ever try to influence other towns to open an farmer's market. Keith responded by saying, "We don't try to influence any. I have helped other markets over the years, but I just give them the general guidelines. It takes a person on site who is really dedicated and will do the footwork. If they want to come and interview our vendors, that's fine. If they want to know how we run our market, we help them with that, but we don't manage anything except the Woodstock Farmer's Market." Keith explains that his vendors are worked very hard. A lot of them are running two vendors per week on both Tuesday and Saturday. Besides selling their product at the market, the vendors are constantly working on their farms to plant, weed, and manage other areas of production. A lot goes into making the products and selling them to farmer's market customers. Of course Keith and Kelly don't discourage other communities from having farmer's markets because a thriving farmer's market community helps everybody. The more people that understand the value of eating local and eating fresh, the more these communities will be benefited. It benefits everybody in our market, which makes it grow just because of that idea of fresh, local produce. In fact, they have some competing markets in close proximity to Woodstock and it hasn't hurt their business at all, it just helps it grow. They have people that go from one market to the next to the next to the next, so they hope my town of Algonquin eventually gets and official farmer's market that opens each year. Not every town has a farmer's market, including Algonquin. Many do, including Crystal Lake, Cary, Lake Barrington, and Lake Zurich. Keith says, "Algonquin has had some over the years, but it's not easy to find people who are dedicated enough to continuously run it. The biggest problem people have when trying to start a farmer's market is getting vendors. When you have a more mature market like the Woodstock Farmer's Market, there's more options for vendors because we can offer more customers." Woodstock is close to several farms and it is lucky enough to have lots of dedicated people in the community who care about fresh food and the environment. My town is surrounded by other towns that have farmer's markets, so hopefully we can get one too.
Another thing I asked Keith and Kelly was, "If there's one thing you could change about your farmer's market, what would it be?" "No rainy days," Keith quickly replied. "Rainy days really affect our business as a market. The vendors can have the best supply of vegetables one day but if it rains we all get hurt. The raint weather is probably the biggest downside that the Woodstock Farmer's Market experiences. On the other hand, it's so beautiful when it's nice like today." Because the market is in an outdoor environment , there are huge crowds and people can still mingle while staying safe from Covid. As far as the market itself, there isn't much Keith nor Kelly would have changed. They grew slowly, but it was all worth it as it led them to the award-winning market that now exists. It took them a while to get to this point, but they did it the right way. They didn't just burst on the scene with 50 vendors and let everbody in. They did a very careful selection process to get to where they are at.
We concluded the conversation by discussing the market's association with other programs that benefit the community. The thing Keith is most proud of is that they accept Link cards so people can use their Link benefits at the market. An Illinois Link card is approved for people who rely on cash assistance, food stamps, and other forms of welfare. Most other markets don't offer that. Keith's market also has an amazing grant from the experimental station out of Hyde Park in Chicago and they match all Link swipes at the market. If somebody swipes their card for $25 in Link benefits, they give them $25 in Link benefits and another $25 in vouchers for fresh fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms. "We're essentially doubling food dollars. We see a lot of families come to the market who are not sure if they can even use Link. To see them excited that they're able to use their Link benefits and double their food dollars is a great moment. Those dollars that are typically going toward Walmart or Aldi are instead being kept in our community and are supporting local farms. Right now, we're finding that our customers are saying that they thought it was going to be really expensive, but the grocery store prices are so high right now that our vendors are pretty much able to match those prices, so people are really getting a lot more food per dollar at Woodstock Farmer's Market. People with food insecurity are suffering a little bit less because of that program. We have also had the pleasure of doing business with Warp Corps, which is located on the square. They believe in engagement as prevention for mental health issues that are impacting our community so we had them print all of our commemorative market bags for our 40th anniversary. We want to continue working with community groups like that. We have Head Start, a community action agency, in the square today running the kid's corner. We have the MCC Ag program out on the square. And we always work with McHenry County Department of Health so that they can really get involved with people that need that information." Woodstock Farmer's Market never hesitates to partner with other organizations and programs that benefit the well-being of the community.
Thank you to Keith and Kelly for talking with me on their busy Saturday, as well as all the vendors who make the market for what it is. I had a great time walking around the square on a beautfiul day with live music playing and the smell of fresh food permeating the square. Feel free to view the full video of my conversation with Keith and Kelly by clicking on the image below. Congratulations on 40 years Woodstock Farmer's Market!