February 08, 2023

Farmers markets a bright spot for struggling vendors in Lake County

Rising costs, worker shortage bring pressure even as customers flock to buy local

WAUCONDA, Ill. — Farmers markets throughout Lake County are a growing asset for vendors struggling with the challenges of rising costs and a worker shortage.

The markets continue to draw crowds this summer, with loyal and new customers looking to buy local and enjoy the festive atmosphere many markets offer.

“I think for ours personally here, I think they come for the community of it all,” said Maria Weisbruch, executive director of the Wauconda Area Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the market. “It’s about seeing your friends, hanging out and getting good stuff. … It’s just a good warm fuzzy feeling. That’s why people come to ours.”

Ranging in size from 24 to 32 vendors, the Wauconda Farmers Market takes place weekly from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursdays through Sept. 29 on Main Street, from Mill Street to Village Hall.

Like markets scattered throughout Lake County — including those in Antioch, Mundelein, Gurnee, Grayslake, Fox Lake, Round Lake Beach and Libertyville — the Wauconda market features fresh produce, meats, cheeses, breads, flowers and other products, along with live music and entertainment.

Weisbruch has noticed challenges affecting vendors this summer, with some last-minute cancellations because of a lack of workers.

“I feel for them,” she said. “They’re so dedicated. Our vendors are so great. It’s just that they’re having a hard time with (finding) employees.”

On the positive side, the market tends to have a steady stream of visitors, she said, with many coming back week after week.

Community-wide pushes to buy local and efforts such as Grow Lake County — a website at growlakecounty.org created by the Lake County Community Foundation — seem to be paying off for many of the vendors at area markets.

An interactive map at Grow Lake County displays farmers markets, along with community supported agriculture programs, farm stands, community gardens, restaurants that source local food, grocers that source local food, plant sales, agritourism, and pollinator and beekeeping efforts in Lake County.

“Whether residents are looking to buy local food, grow their own or get involved with local food groups and organizations, we see Grow Lake County as a one-stop-shop resource,” said Maggie Morales, executive director of the Lake County Community Foundation. “We look forward to maintaining this site for the community in order to support a more cohesive and coordinated local food system in Lake County.”

Amid farming challenges, markets have been a bright spot, with visitors even generously tipping employees, said Theresa Harms, owner of Harms Farm and Garden Center of McHenry.

“They’re so happy we’re there,” she said.

Along with the Wauconda market, Harms sets up shop at four other farmers markets in both Lake and McHenry counties and sells products from farm stands located at its McHenry location and at the McHenry Outdoor Theater.

The start of school will bring a loss of high school employee hours, she said. That, coupled with an expected rise in the cost of petroleum-based fertilizers and treatments, likely will make things even more challenging, she said.

“It’s very difficult, but we’re hanging in,” Harms said. “Everything is labor intensive and we’re losing employees.”

She’s bumped employee pay to draw and keep workers, while at the same time, she’s had to slightly increase some prices to keep up with rising costs.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen (in the future), but we’re doing the best we can,” said Harms, who has been taking part in farmers markets for several decades.

Old and new vendors alike are relying on the markets to draw in customers.

New to the Wauconda Farmers Market this year, Golden Gills — a year-old mushroom farm created in an industrial space in Wauconda — has picked up a fan base.

Owner Julie Mitchell Musgrove converted about 1,800 square feet of office space into a mushroom lab with growing tents.

Her gourmet mushrooms are cultivated sustainably from coffee waste. She also makes mushrooms from scratch in an incubation room using oak and soy recycled from sawdust and the waste protein of soybean products.

Along with fresh and dried mushrooms, she sells grow kits, called Future Farms, that customers can use to grow their own mushrooms at home.

“I wanted to have a flagship where we live,” Musgrove said of her decision to join the Wauconda Farmers Market. “I’m starting to get a little bit of traction from our first four weeks of showing up. This past week was the best week we’ve had.

“I’m out there screaming about how we have to buy our food locally and support our local farms and how much better our food is when it’s not sitting on a truck for weeks. With food supply chain issues and everything we’ve been experiencing since COVID, it’s amplified that we need to get back this way.”

In Grayslake, the farmers market also remains a popular draw.

Described as “Lake County’s longest-running and largest evening market,” the market takes place from 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Sept. 28 on Center Street in downtown Grayslake.

“Our farmers are certainly having issues this year, getting help and the rising cost of their expenses,” said Julie Jason, market manager. “Having said that, we’re probably seeing the most traffic we’ve seen since pre-pandemic.”

The growth could be because of a rise in the number of new families in the community, she said, and the family-friendly nature of the market, which, like several markets, allows dogs. The live entertainment — with many nearby businesses joining in — creates a festive atmosphere, Jason said.

This summer’s market has 45 vendors, she said, with new additions such as a pick-your-own flower booth from Piscasaw Gardens in Harvard.

“It’s a fun environment on the street, and it gives our shoppers the opportunity to buy farm-to-table vegetables with a great selection of other vendors, wine, cheese, spices,” she said.

Other area farmers markets include:

• El Mercadito Round Lake Beach Farmers Market, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17 at Lake Front Park, 1019 N. Lake Shore Drive, Round Lake Beach.

• Main Street Libertyville Farmers Market, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays through Oct. 20 in Cook Park and on West Church Street.

• Fox Lake Farmers Market, 3 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sept. 27 at 17 E. School Court.

• Mundelein Farmers Market, 3 to 7 p.m. Fridays through Oct. 14 at Park Street, between Lake and Seymour streets.

• Antioch Farmers Market, 4 to 7 p.m. Thursdays through Sept. 22 at 900 Skidmore Drive.