The Riverside Farmers Market faces an uncertain future after a poor year last summer. A founder and local hobby-farmer/vendor asked the village’s Economic Development Commission to stop overseeing the market, calling for a new group of volunteers to take over. And a feud between vendors-with one alleging that the other does not grow their own produce-has both sides threatening not to return next year.
The Wednesday afternoon market’s sophomore year had significantly less foot traffic to the village parking lot at 17 E. Burlington St.
“Our sales were down 50 percent this year,” says Brad Bothwell, of M & D Farms in far south suburban New Lenox. “That put the hurting on us. We had only two people working for most of the summer and had to lay off another guy.” The market added new vendors this year, and competition did cause a loss of sales, he says.
Vendors at the market this year were: Tomato Mountain (Brooklyn, Wisc.), Lyons Fruit Farm (South Haven, Mich.), Vacha Florist (Riverside), Brockway Farms (Riverside), Carol Rodriguez (Riverside), Fraternite de Notre Dame bakery (Chicago).
Founder and Riverside farmer Randall Brockway says hot weather, rain and a less involved approach by the Economic Development Commission than during the market’s first year got things off to a slow start — and momentum never recovered. “Most markets have a support group or a sponsor or a group of volunteers. At Brookfield the chamber of commerce comes to the market and they have a presence there.” (Brockway also sells at the Brookfield market). A landscape architect turned full-time micro-farmer, Brockway formerly designed farmers markets for the FDA during the 1970s.
Village Trustee Mark Shevitz, board liaison to the Economic Development Commission, says officials are open to creating a volunteer support group. The village, he says, wants the market to continue and to grow.
Brockway is also one of two vendors who have clashed over the summer, alleging that M & D was not really growing the vegetables they were selling.
“M & D Farms presented every week with large quantities of disease-free produce that didn’t jibe with local conditions,” said Brockway. Specifically Brockway alleged that M & D was selling cool weather crops such as romaine lettuce, spinach and broccoli during the hottest months of the summer, allegedly indicating that they were brought in from another source. Brockway also says the heavy rains of summer, followed by extreme heat caused himself and other small farmers to lose many crops. Brockway stopped selling at Riverside in September due to a shortage of crops.
But M & D Farms owner Mark Walsh is adamant that every vegetable sold at the market is grown on his 80 acre farm in Homer Glen. He brings Michigan fruits to market through a co-op with a Michigan farmer.
Walsh agrees that the weather was a challenge: “It was one of the weirdest years that we ever had. It rained a lot in the beginning and then it was too dry and hot.” He’s been running a large farming operation with attached farmstand and participating in several farmers markets since 1988 — when he married into the business.
Walsh says he had a similar complaint at a market in Glenview years ago where another grower challenged the origins of his subarctic tomatoes. “People from the market came and checked our field. We didn’t have a lot of tomatoes, about three bushels. But they came and took videos and showed the video to the guy. He never did apologize.”
Walsh says he’s been asked to do several Wednesday markets and he’s got markets on Friday, Saturday and Sundays as well. “Every market we do they love us. We have great stuff at a good price and it’s fresh. That’s what people want.”
M & D and Brockway Farms have differences in presentation style, as well. Brockway’s vegetables are lightly handled and sold in a rustic state – with more visible dirt on them.
M & D’s produce is washed on-site in turntable scrubbers with nine sprayers and roller brushes that loosen up the dirt and spray it off, says Walsh. He also rejects lots of vegetables. “You have to put out good stuff. We put it in bunches so it looks really nice.”
M & D’s Bothwell’s retail background has him focused on pleasing customers aesthetically. “I always focused on: the store has to look perfect. Instead of bare tables we have green tables with grass on them. We use half bushel baskets because they look nice.”
Brockway complains that M & D’s slick presentation is “holding the market back.”
“Why attend the Riverside Farmers Market when there’s a display that looks like Dominick’s? Why put yourself through that when you can shop in an air conditioned store?”
The disagreement spilled over into some arguments over the summer and bruised feelings on both sides. Both parties told the Landmark that they’re not certain they’ll be returning next year. “The Wednesday market is tiddlywinks compared to the weekend markets,” says Walsh. “I’ve lost my enthusiasm,” says Brockway.
M & D’s Bothwell, says that local farmers markets are over-saturating the area and growers need a threshold of sales to make a smaller market worth it. “We bring a full load of produce at 10 a.m. to the market. And if it doesn’t sell at Riverside it’s done. We can it, freeze it, donate to a shelter or give it to animals. The bigger farmers are going to have to pick and choose which markets they can participate in. And it will be a wholly financial decision.”
Shevitz says the economic development commission is shifting its focus away from local events toward bringing more businesses to Riverside. Shevitz’s wife Amy Jacksic managed the market this summer. Shevitz says Jacksic called M & D and was assured that all vegetables they sold were grown on-site. “[Brockway] suggested her driving out and doing a surprise inspection [at M & D]. For a volunteer that’s asking a lot.”
“The village is interested in continuing the farmers market. We’ll work to try to make that happen again. We hope to find a group of volunteers who can step up and help the market going forward,” says Shevitz.
Trustee Jean Sussman, who managed the market last year was optimistic. “It’s still early in the year [for the farmers market to be organized]. It’s really nice for Riverside to have a farmers market and it brings people downtown.”