Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series looking at how farmers and artisans are reaching customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click here for part two, a look at the future for Central Illinois farmers markets as winter forces them inside.
BLOOMINGTON — For over a decade, warm weather for Katie Bishop meant bundling up zucchini, onions, tomatoes and other produce, and hauling them from her Atlanta farm to the Downtown Bloomington Farmers Market.
But this year was different.
The COVID-19 pandemic's arrival in mid-March sent vendors like Bishop scrambling to get their products to customers. Bloomington's market was among those that pivoted to an online, curbside-pickup hybrid market in the spring before returning to modified operation in early summer. Some vendors also began delivering right to customers' doors.
Demand was high. Particularly in the first weeks of the pandemic, grocery stores were struggling to work out kinks with their supply chains and surging demand. Some customers also were reluctant or unable to venture out because of concerns about the rapidly spreading virus.
Bishop and her husband, Hans, of PrairiErth Farms took part in the curbside delivery option that Bloomington's market offered.
"That was absolutely incredible in April and the early part of May, when the community was responding to COVID and there were food shortages," said Bishop. "The Downtown Bloomington Association really came through quickly on that.
"It was great because we had all this product, and people wanted it, and we didn't feel safe distributing it."
In mid-June, Bloomington's farmers market opened for the outdoor season with some restrictions. Live music, kids' crafts and other activities that fostered the market's community atmosphere are not allowed because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Bishop and her employees returned to the market, pulling in sales and seeing customers again. But from the beginning, something didn't feel right to Bishop, who was worried for her employees' safety.
When one of her employees tested positive for COVID-19, it became time to "make some tough calls." Though they treasured in-person interaction with their customers, the Bishops pulled out of the farmers market, citing concerns about keeping workers and employees safe.
Left with an abundance of certain crops, Katie Bishop wasn't sure what her next move would be.
That's when she learned about Market Wagon, a growing e-commerce business connecting farmers with customers through a "virtual farmer's market." Dozens of Central Illinois vendors have started using the service since it arrived in the region in June, offering weekly deliveries to 11 counties in the region.
A new market
Nick Carter, co-founder and CEO of Market Wagon, grew up on his family's Indiana farm but left at 18, noting that mass consolidation left less and less footing for smaller, independent operations.
"The mantra in the '80s was 'get big or get out,' and we couldn't get big enough," said Carter, who went on to build a 10-year career in tech startups.
As small farms began collapsing, facing loans, foreclosure and bankruptcy, many were left searching for an alternative route, Carter said. At the same time, a new type of consumer demand was growing. People wanted organic, pasture-raised produce and meat from farmers they knew and trusted.
“In order to farm for another generation, most farmers are going to have to find a way to diversify their income and bring their food to the marketplace,” said Carter.
That's where Market Wagon — online at marketwagon.com or available as a smartphone app — comes in. Launched in 2016, the service allows customers to place orders for items like heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn and fresh-baked sourdough bread from local vendors, just as they might order a product on Amazon. The items are then delivered to their doors on a set day.
The service began operating in the Indianapolis area and has expanded rapidly, fueled in part by the closure of in-person farmers markets because of COVID-19 concerns.
"The pandemic made food delivery a necessity for many households," he said. "At the same time it made farmers markets impossible.”
In June, the business arrived in Central Illinois with a regional hub located in Bloomington. The Central Illinois market serves 11 counties: McLean, Peoria, Woodford, Tazewell, Logan, DeWitt, Macon, Piatt, Champaign, Sangamon and Christian.
Market Wagon now operates in 14 cities across seven states, and there are plans to increase its reach further.
"We plan on having these open everywhere across the country," said Carter.
How it works
Market Wagon Central Illinois offers more than 500 products from 51 vendors and artisans. Products range from meat, dairy and seasonal produce to artisanal products such as jams, spices and seasonings, and baked goods.
There are no subscriptions required, but there is a home delivery fee of $5.95. People can purchase a Wagon Pass — $14.95 per month or $149 per year — for free home delivery.
Orders are shipped weekly on Thursdays from the Bloomington regional hub. Farmers and vendors drop off their products that morning and delivery drivers begin transporting them that afternoon. Insulated packaging, ice packs and other means are used to keep the products at the appropriate temperature.
The service doesn't guarantee exact delivery times, but does send customers an email and text message to let them know their orders have arrived.
"With COVID, I think people are looking for fresh goods and maybe aren’t making it out as often," said Robin Pletcher, Market Wagon Central Illinois hub coordinator. “I think it’s a safe, easy way for customers to get their local goods."
Many farmers markets were unable to operate due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, or they experienced a loss of customers for pandemic-related reasons. Some farmers, such as Bishop with PrairiErth Farms, didn't feel safe traveling to and from the markets.
Market Wagon has helped some supplement that lost income, said Pletcher.
“Some of our vendors and our farmers actually have double jobs, so this is a secondary income for them and a way to support those additional expenses and costs that were building during COVID,” she said.
For Charlie Larkin, co-owner and operator of Above Normal Eggs in Normal, some sales have been down at in-person farmers markets. But, in general, he's noticed that more and more people want local produce these days.
"It’s just nice to get my name out there and possibly get into other farmer’s markets and stores in the future,” said Larkin, who sells a variety of eggs, including chicken, duck and quail eggs.
For Candice Hart, owner of Pollen & Pastry in Bloomington, and Jeff Hake, co-owner of Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains, Market Wagon is another way to hit a new customer base.
Both Hart and Hake offer products through a number of venues, such as farmers markets, store websites and other grocery stores. But Market Wagon is a source for a steady income stream in addition to their businesses.
“I think if Market Wagon continues on a weekly basis, I think it’s going to be a nice outlet for the off-season to be able to sell products on a weekly basis," Hart said. “It’s been a really great option for farmers to be able to have another outlet to sell our products.”
Others said they are reaching a wider customer base through Market Wagon as opposed to attending several small farmers markets in areas, saving time and money.
"It just works very smoothly," said Hake. "It's been a great way to reach a whole new set of customers."
A look at agriculture in Central Illinois
Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.