by Daniel Chung, Olivia Ingram and Haley Soehn
URBANA’S MARKET AT THE SQUARE
It’s growing season for farms everywhere, and Urbana’s Market at the Square is the prime place to buy the freshest local fruits and vegetables. Visitors to the Market at the Square are faced with an array of the best Illinois-made goods from around, including fresh produce, meat, dairy products, flowers, jewelry, pottery, woodworking items, candles, garden décor, clothes and much, much more. And as Champaign-Urbana is smack dab in the center of the good ole Illinois soil and farmland, you know this stuff is good.
Located on the corner of Illinois and Vine Streets in downtown Urbana, The Market at the Square has been bubbling with activity for 33 years every Saturday morning in the summer, rain or shine. Thousands of residents swarm the stalls from 7 a.m. to noon. Patrons leisurely make their way through the market, picking fresh ingredients and hunting for hidden treasures at various stalls. Families sit down at tables and feed their kids with freshly bought food from the Crave Truck and various stalls. Friends gather around the square, enjoying the music set from local performers around town.
I went to the Market at the Square years ago, back when I was a kid. I went back the other day to check it out again and see what had changed. As I made my way through the market, I couldn’t help but think of how the place was a local paradise. A quartet performed on a corner strumming jovial, indie tunes. Another jazz group performed on the opposite corner. Colorful necklaces and other cool-looking jewelry were available everywhere. There was a guy selling beautiful photographs of nature for ten bucks a piece. There were multiple stalls selling rare flowers along with sunflowers and lilies. Other crafts like handmade ropes, rugs and even animals and other items carved from wood were present, as well.
At the Market, you will have no trouble picking up a wide variety of delicious, locally-grown, organic fruits and vegetables, but there is much more to be seen here than standard farmers market fare. If you wind your way through the bustling rows of booths and past the various musicians performing at every corner, there are many unique treasures to be found — custom-made jewelry, hand-carved wooden birds, fresh kettle corn from a food truck, and an English Toffee vendor whose giant booth is shaped like a fairytale castle complete with a fearsome dragon watching over the wide array of sweets. Ingredients like fresh basil, parsley leaves, herbs, bean sprouts, cabbages, tomatoes, other fresh fruits and vegetables, jars of honey, jam, fresh bread, butter and baguettes were set all over the place. Signs of fresh foods were plentiful. There was a cupcake vendor selling unique and colorful cupcake treats to passers-by. There was even a stall where you can buy tokens with a credit or debit card that you can trade to vendors if you don’t have any cash on you. With so many stalls open, even if you find yourself out of place in the local scene, you can always find something here to interest you. A few interesting vendors are described in more detail below:
Tiny Greens Organic Farm is a local farm that specializes in sprouts and baby microgreens (similar to sprouts, only they are grown in dirt rather than in a jar). If you’re an environmental activist, this place is for you: everything grown at Tiny Greens is certified organic, the farm itself utilizes green technology and absolutely nothing goes to waste – any left-over or unused products are composted and then used on the farm again at a later point. Even the truck that they use to transport their goods to the market is eco-friendly: it runs on vegetable oil collected from restaurants in the Champaign-Urbana area. The sprouts and microgreens are super tasty and good for you. Try the Sunflower Greens, their most popular seller, which are sweet and crisp, or the new Curly Cress if you want something spicy. All of their products are great either in sandwiches or salads, or even by themselves as a ridiculously healthy snack. You can buy their products by the tray or the pouch (the size of a plastic sandwich bag) – the sprouts are usually $2 per pouch, while the baby microgreens are $3. Check out their website for more information: www.tinygreens.org
PRAIRIE FRUITS FARM AND CREAMERY
Prairie Fruits Farm makes fresh artisan goat cheese every other day in their local creamery with milk from their own goat herd. The goats have a little over ten acres to graze on when it is warm outside and a spacious farmhouse to stay in during our cold CU winters. The goats are treated so well, in fact, that the Prarie Fruits Farm and Creamery has been Animal Welfare Approved (which means that it holds the “gold standard” for humane animal treatment – visit www.animalwelfareapproved.org for more information). The Prairie Fruits Creamery has more than ten varieties of goat cheese. While artisan goat cheese is impressive enough on its own, the Prairie Fruits Creamery recently started producing goat milk gelato. Yes – you read that right – gelato. They sell pints of the gelato at the Market along with their cheese every week. Gelato flavors include Hazelnut, Pistachio, Strawberry, Mint, Rhubarb Swirl and Chocolate. Try a free sample or buy a pint for $10! Website: www.prairiefruits.com.
J AND K MEATS
Vegetarians, avert your eyes! One of a few meat vendors at the Market, J and K Meats has been selling their all-natural, hormone and antibiotic-free meats there for the past five years. You can find their truck at the back corner of the Market every week, usually with a line in front of it. Their most popular items are the basics – cured bacon ($5.75/lb), ground beef ($4.79/lb), and chicken breast ($6.99/lb), but they also sell some more exotic items, like their new goat bratwurst ($11/lb). Their livestock is allowed to roam; having no confinement of the animals is one of their founding principles. If you’re a carnivore looking for some meat to cook up at your next BBQ, the J and K Meats truck at the Urbana Farmers Market might be the perfect place for you to go. Website: http://jandkmeats.webs.com.
There are so many choices of foods to try and ingredients to experiment with, so be innovative, hit up the market and indulge your pockets. It’ll be around all summer, so if you wake up early one Saturday morning, like to try new things or just want a nice, wholesome place to shop for groceries, check this place out. People are constantly coming and leaving, so I had no trouble finding parking either. Overall, the Market at the Square is a productive, fun and perfect way to start off a Saturday morning. Whether you’re into flowers, organic produce, local honey, or older folks jamming together on bongos and recorders, the Urbana Market at the Square has something for everyone. Find more information on the Urbana farmers market at their blog: www.market-at-the-square.blogspot.com and on Facebook and Twitter.
CHAMPAIGN’S HISTORIC FIRST STREET FARMERS MARKET
With only about ten tents, the Champaign Farmers Market is quite small. Walking up to the site, I must say I was a little disappointed. I suppose that, given Champaign’s proximity to local farms filled with produce, I expected a bit more.
As I approached the market, though, it became clear that size isn’t everything. The kindness of the locals was evident with each employee and fellow customer. Delicious smells and sounds filled the area, creating a perfect summer atmosphere. Each farmer had a unique story to tell. Some had been selling at the Champaign Farmers Market for over twenty years; others were there for the first time. However, they all shared the same problem: the weather. With the odd temperature patterns and recent drought conditions, many farmers have significantly less produce than they would usually be selling at this point in the season.
One farmer, who sells everything from tomatoes to apricots and peaches, said she has been selling her produce at the Champaign Farmers Market for about 25 years. During her years, she said that the turnout hasn’t changed much; it has always been quite small. She told of her farm’s problems during the recent drought, which has ruined many crops. Another group of farmers, working from Seldom Home Farms, have similar issues.
“We’ve had to hand-water most of our berries, and we’re not even selling the rest of our produce,” said Deanna Prather, of Seldom Home Farms. She said they grow 125 types of vegetables, but they only sold their berries at the Champaign Farmers Market because of the market’s small size. They sell a larger variety at both the Urbana and St. Joe Farmers Markets.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, the farmers market offers live music. One local jazz group, who hasn’t yet created a name for themselves, performs weekly at four in the afternoon. The students attend Central High School and formed this unofficial group as a way to play even more great music. They’re inspired by famous jazz artists including Miles Davis.
The Champaign Farmers Market may not be huge, and perhaps it isn’t overflowing with crowds and tents. However, that’s the appeal. It’s an opportunity for patrons to talk to the farmers, learn about their work and meet other community members.