Weekly Farmer's Market provides University community with student-grown, local produce

Plastic baskets brimming with freshly picked vegetables like beets, kale and turnips fill tables set up at the Sustainable Student Farm’s weekly Farmer’s Market on the Anniversary Plaza south of the Illini Union. As shoppers pick through the produce, Sustainable Student Farm employees Patricia Kelly and Kaelyn Knoche, both sophomores in ACES, offer advice and answer questions. The farm, which is located about two miles southeast of campus, is a six-acre production farm established in 2009 by a grant from the Student Sustainability Committee, according to the farm’s website . The farm is funded largely by its sales to the University’s Dining Services as well as the Farmer’s Market, and also continues to receive funding from the SSC.

Barring bad weather, the Farmer’s Market, which is now in its fourth year, will be held every Thursday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October, with Knoche and Kelly there almost every week to sell the produce they’ve helped grow. All the while, they will work to raise awareness of the SSF.

“We’re here to help people buy produce at a good price and help people learn things about sustainable farming,” Knoche said.

The produce available at the market will change weekly, with the current selection consisting of cool-season crops like lettuce and kale. As the summer goes on, the selection will grow to include crops like tomatoes, peppers, onions, herbs, and even melons and cut flowers, Knoche said.

Business has been steady since the weekly market began on May 23, Knoche said, with much of the produce selling out by the late afternoon. 

Zack Grant, the managing director of the SSF, said that the Farmer’s Market is a way to connect with consumers, particularly students, in a way that the farm is unable to through its produce sales to the University’s Dining Services.

“From the beginning, I wanted to do more retail and direct-to-consumer marketing because in our relationship with Dining Services, we don’t really have that much of a relationship with the end user of the product,” Grant said. “We sell it and bring it to the staff so they can utilize it, but we don’t really get to have a relationship with the students themselves. The direct-to-consumer marketing with the farm stand allows us to have a one-on-one relationship with the consumer.”

The market, Kelly said, can also bring the campus community together, in addition to raising awareness of the farm and connecting with students.

“If we’re growing vegetables, we want people to eat it, and it’s not just the students,” Kelly said. “It’s really cool that we get staff involved, like the library staff. They come on their lunch breaks and pick up vegetables. It’s cool that we’re crossing from students into staff and bringing everyone together.”

Angela Jordan, who works at the University’s Archives Research Center, said she heard about the Farm Stand from friends and shopped for greens to cook with at the May 30 stand. Jordan said the Farm Stand is “a great place to start” for anyone looking to eat more locally and sustainably grown food.

Grant said the market makes Thursday the busiest day of the week at the SSF. 

“We harvest a little bit in the afternoon on Wednesday, but as soon as we get here on Thursday, it’s a mad rush to get everything done,” he said. “It’s kind of a mad dash to get everything harvested that morning, get it washed and packed, get it to the Quad and get everything set up. So Thursdays are a hectic, 10-hour day.”

For Kelly, whose major is horticulture, Thursday is also the best day of the week.

“It’s what I want to do with my life,” she said. “If I don’t like it, I’m in trouble. I have a lot of fun, but it’s harder some days than others. Thursdays are my favorite day. I love being at the farm stand, and it’s so fun to talk to everyone.”

The Farmer’s Market, and working at the SSF itself, is a labor of love for both Kelly and Knoche, who hope to one day do similar work as a career. Working at the SSF also provides crucial on-the-job experience, Knoche said.

“We like what we do, and we do it for that,” said Knoche. “It is a job, but this is exactly what I want to do, so it’s a win-win situation for me.”

Though the SSF is not a certified organic farm, the farm’s produce is grown using organic practices, Grant said. For instance, crops are generally not sprayed with pesticides.

“We don’t really use chemicals,” Grant said. “We do use a few that are considered botanical or organic-type products, but even those products we try to minimize our use of. We’re just trying to utilize techniques where we’re working in harmony with the natural system as much as we can.”

The farm uses other practices to increase sustainability, including cover cropping, in which grasses and legumes are grown and then tilled back into the soil to create a sort of living mulch, adding nutrients to the soil and preventing soil erosion. 

Additionally, an electric-powered tractor is being developed for use on the farm. The farm will also begin a project with University dining halls this year in which food waste from the dining halls, some of it having been grown at the farm, will be turned into compost to aid in growing more food, Grant said.

Lauren can be reached at llcox2@dailyillini.com.