Though it’s nine a.m. on an early spring Saturday, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum buzzes.
Colorfully clothed tables crowd rooms on the first and second floor, juxtaposed with museum store wares and signs touting new exhibit “Food: The Nature of Eating.” Shoppers equipped with canvas tote bags peruse offerings from two dozen area farms, as young families drawn to the museum’s collections check their purchases at a second-floor “Veggie Valet” station. There is friendly chatter, much of it from vendors – tips on carrot preparation, discussion of growing methods. For many, that spirit of fellowship is one of Green City Market’s central draws.
“It’s nice to know who’s going to be consuming your produce,” says Nick Nichols of Nichols Farm & Orchard in Marengo, Illinois. “It ends up being a lot more personal, and you realize where everything’s going.”
Green City Market began in 1998 as Chicago’s first sustainable farmer’s market. Today, the not-for-profit organization operates year-round, hosted indoors at the museum every Saturday from November through April and at an outdoor Clark Street site in the warmer months.
Nichols Farm & Orchard was one of the market’s first vendors.
“It originally started off with I think like 10 farms,” notes the 34-year-old Nichols of an endeavor that now includes nearly 60 vendors in summer. “Definitely a lot more customers now, a lot more people buying local and farm-fresh.”
Nichols Farm & Orchard, situated at the front of the entrance, boasts plentiful offerings even in this cool season. Basil and popping corn supplement a lavish array of root vegetables that includes 10 varieties of potatoes, like the heritage Rose Finn Apple – its poetic name, one product sign informs us, a mistranslation from the German Rosa Tannenzapfen, “pink fir cone.”
Produce, however, is less abundant this week than it will be in summer. Instead, canned goods have become a sideline for some farms, such as Beloit, Wisconsin’s Grass Is Greener, which introduced its Bushel & Peck line of preserves last year.
“There’s already a lot of other fresh produce vendors here, so it’s nice to carve out a niche for yourself,” notes the farm’s Graydon Chapman, 28.
Prepared foods offer another niche. Gayle Voss of Belvidere, Wisconsin’s Prairie Pure Cheese has found one effective strategy for cross-promotion.
“The fresh bread people, when we get outside, are right next to me, and I’m good friends with Al from Nordic Creamery who has fresh butter, and I was thinking ‘Why am I not making grilled cheese?’” laughs the 52-year-old Voss. “I use the toppings from other vendors – the fresh tomatoes, today I have the fresh arugula from Majestic Farm. In the winter I’ll use jarred products from Southport Grocery and Café, but they buy their ingredients from Green City Market.”
Concern for the local is constantly emphasized. Placards at each station highlight “miles to market,” the distance goods have traveled to reach Green City. Most range from 60 to 100 miles; Chicago-based restaurateur Zullo’s is only four. Across the aisle, Dyersville, Iowa’s Becker Lane takes the distance prize at 203.
But distance is relative for Becker Lane, one of the region’s premiere organic pork producers, which offers both meat – featured today in chili prepared tableside – and, more recently, cookies and carnitas.
“This particular market is the only market where [Becker Lane] could showcase their product as a super-local product, as a super-organic product, as a premium product,” says vendor Brad Newman, 29, of Green City’s appeal. “It doesn’t get diluted here. It could be showcased the way it should be.”
Super-local, super-organic, from fresh eggs to beeswax candles to dog bones. This mission is what sets apart Green City Market – and unites the community that gathers here weekly.
(Written for DePaul University’s seminar in Lifestyle Reporting)