Dennis Zehr, daughter Anna and wife Ellen check out some early-season rhubarb that’s ready for the market. The Zehrs sell their produce through their community-supported agriculture program, and they also sell produce at the Princeton Farmers Market, a more than 20-year tradition in the Bureau County farm community. The market has continued its success through several moves, the latest occurring for this season, with the market located at the corner of Main and Elm streets in downtown Princeton, Ill.
Dennis Zehr, daughter Anna and wife Ellen check out some early-season rhubarb that’s ready for the market. The Zehrs sell their produce through their community-supported agriculture program, and they also sell produce at the Princeton Farmers Market, a more than 20-year tradition in the Bureau County farm community. The market has continued its success through several moves, the latest occurring for this season, with the market located at the corner of Main and Elm streets in downtown Princeton, Ill.

PRINCETON, Ill. — For Dennis and Ellen Zehr of Coneflower Farm in rural Tiskilwa, selling the produce they grow on their farm at the Princeton Farmers Market is nothing new.

While the location of the market — now at the corner of Elm Street and Main Street in downtown Princeton — is new this year, the market itself was attracting business and vendors years before farmers markets were a hot, hip trend among the foodie set. And before there even was a foodie set.

“When we first started, there were five regular vendors,” Dennis Zehr said.

The Zehrs were on a three-year mission trip to the African nation of Lesotho. When they returned from that trip in the late 1980s, they decided they wanted to start farming.

“While we were there, we decided we wanted to live a little more simply, come back to this area and grow vegetables,” Ellen Zehr recalled.

They purchased 10 acres from friends and later added three acres to their farm. Learning to accommodate the tastes of the local area provided some challenges at first.

“Our diversity has increased. In Lesotho, Swiss chard is a favorite green, so in our first year here, we grew a lot of Swiss chard. We took tons of Swiss chard to market,” said Ellen, laughing at the memory of trying to gauge the vegetable preferences of 1990-era Bureau County. “Do you know how many people ate Swiss chard? But it was what we were used to.”

Nowadays, with the summertime help of daughter Anna, 14, and sons Luke, 22, and Simon, 19, who will return home from college during the summer, the Zehrs sell their produce at the Princeton Farmers Market and through their community-supported agriculture program, which currently has just under 40 members.

Keeping up with the demands of a three-season-long CSA, as well as a farmers market that runs from spring to early autumn, has its challenges.

“It reduces what we take to the farmers market, but it’s been a very good mix for us to have both because it maximizes our ability to market our products. We have really enjoyed the farmers market over the years because of the contact with the public, and we just felt we didn’t want to stop doing that,” Dennis Zehr said.

The Zehrs have been to the Princeton Farmers Market more than 800 times over the past 23 years that they have been selling there.

Their children, who each plant a garden plot and can either sell what they grow or use it for family consumption, grew up helping their parents unload and set up the family’s produce at the Princeton Farmers Market.

Over those years, they’ve not only moved as the market moved to different locations around Princeton, but they’ve also seen the market grow and change to fit what customers wanted.

“I think the farmers market, in the early days, people were looking for a good deal. Now, more people who come there are looking for good food,” said Ellen Zehr, who added that while their farm is not certified organic, all the produce is grown without the use of chemicals or pesticides.

This year’s move has brought with it the expected concerns and challenges, but Dennis Zehr said that’s not unusual, although he confessed a preference for the setting in Darius Miller Park.

“With any kind of change, there are uncertainties, and we have always preferred a park setting as opposed to a parking lot setting,” he said.

The market itself has moved around town, but in each location, its presence continues to be a plus for the community, according to Kim Frey, director of the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber partners with the Bureau County Farm Bureau and the City of Princeton to sponsor the farmers market.

“We believe that having a community market is always a good thing, so we’ve encouraged the market and we have welcomed the partnership with the city of Princeton and the Bureau County Farm Bureau. I think having all of those groups partner together really makes it unique,” Frey said.

She said that one of the questions she regularly gets from prospective new residents is whether the town has a farmers market.

“A common question we get from newcomers to Princeton is do you have a farmers market, so I know it’s definitely a popular draw for people. Any time we have someone new moving into the area, we get asked that question,” said Frey, who said farmers markets and an active local food scene is an asset for communities wishing to attract young families.

“It’s something that young people are looking for, and we want to draw the younger generation to our community and, hopefully, keep them here. By doing that, we can bring even better things to our town. The market gives us an advantage,” she said.

The market days, on Tuesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. and on Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., also is a plus for Princeton’s downtown business community, Frey said.

“The market is located near the business district, and we encourage our downtown retailers to get involved in the market days, too,” she said.

Jill Frueh, manager of the Bureau County Farm Bureau, maintains correspondence for the vendors.

“I keep the guidelines up to date, and the guidelines are listed on our website. We register them and keep them up to date through email. We keep track of who’s going to be at the market from week to week, so we can allocate space, and we work with the health department to make sure all of their guidelines are followed,” said Frueh, who also shops at the market.

Vendors at the market pay a fee to set up shop there, and they can pay monthly or seasonally.

As the Princeton Farmers Market has grown and changed to fit customers’ needs, that growth has included conversations on guidelines for vendors.

In order to keep a local taste and face on the farmers market, the market guidelines require that vendors must have grown the products they are selling and that vendors come from Bureau County or counties adjacent to Bureau County.

“That’s been part of the discussions because it does create a bigger market, but we have decided to stay with local produce and local growers,” Frueh said.

One program that has been a benefit to the market and its vendors — as well as to the customers who use them — are the Farmers Market Nutrition Program, administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The FMNP provides coupons to those enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance program and to citizens over 60 years of age who have household incomes not more than 185 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines.

Those eligible for FMNP can pick up coupons at different locations. The coupons can be used to purchase vegetables and fruit only.

“For us, it works like a check,” Ellen Zehr explained.

Frueh helped the vendors get certified to accept the coupons and has monitored the progress of the program.

“It’s fantastic. I’ve talked to the growers, and they’ve said it’s seamless — they think it’s wonderful,” she said.

Frueh also noted that the coupons have helped to bring in more customers to the market.

“The coupons help because they bring in customers who might not normally be purchasing at the market, but now they can with the coupons to purchase fresh produce,” she said.

Dennis Zehr agreed. “This has been a real boost to the market and to us as vendors,” he said.

Even as the Princeton Farmers Market grows and changes — and moves — its continued success appears almost guaranteed due to the enthusiasm of those who have stayed the course, such as Dennis and Ellen Zehr. “The farmers market really is a community event,” Ellen Zehr said.