From its humble beginnings as a gathering of farmers in 1982, the Woodstock Farmers Market has become an established and celebrated community tradition. That may not have happened without the help of Keith Johnson, one of the market’s first advisory committee members and the first market manager, who guided it from a casual get-together to one of the nation’s top markets.
“While he isn’t the founder, he is the heart and the soul of what people now know the farmers market to be,” says Kelly Kempf, market manager for the Woodstock Farmers Market.
These days, the market is a year-round event that gathers on the historic Woodstock Square every Saturday between April and late October, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. It also meets on Tuesdays between June and September.
Kempf believes fall is the best time to visit.
“Fruits and vegetables are bountiful, pumpkins are starting to come in; it’s just really an exciting time,” she says. “Even though, theoretically, we should be winding down, we kind of ramp up.”
This time of year, visitors will find nearly 54 vendors gathered around the Square on any given Saturday. Their goods include fresh produce, flowers, baked goods, bread, honey, artisan crafts, cider doughnuts, fresh-cooked pierogi and much more. Good smells swirl around the Square.
It’s a lively atmosphere, as musicians play at the gazebo and children gather for story time with a Woodstock librarian or Arlene Lynes of Read Between the Lynes, a local bookstore located on the Square.
The market works closely with businesses around the Square. There are no drink vendors at the market as a courtesy to homegrown shops like Ethereal Confections, 140 Cass St., which got its start at the market. Ethereal now serves up bean-to-bar chocolates, hot chocolates, coffees and teas, sandwiches and other treats at its stylish cafe.
Market patrons can meet vendors such as Lovely Roots, a seller of house plants that are propagated in the business owner’s sunroom. There’s also Salsa King of Chicago, which recently announced a contract with the Jewel-Osco grocery chain.
It’s not only the duration that sets Woodstock Farmers Market apart from other markets in the area. This is a producers’ market, meaning only products that are grown, produced or made by local farmers or artisans can be sold on-site. Kempf and the market team carefully vet new vendors and drop in on existing vendors to ensure this promise to consumers.
“A lot of times, it’s very easy to turn a farmers market into an artisan fair, but we’ve got a strong blueprint for staying a farmers market and remaining producer-based,” says Kempf. “Everybody in our market must produce what they sell.”
Once the temperatures drop in late October, the market heads indoors to building D at the McHenry County Fairgrounds, 11900 Country Club Road. Smaller than the summer market, the winter market is open on Oct. 29 and the first three Saturdays in November and December from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. From January to April, the market operates on the first and third Saturday of each month.
This more intimate winter gathering brings many familiar vendors as well as family activities. More importantly, it provides a feeling of togetherness.
“I think we need that sense of community during the winter more than ever, and the Woodstock Farmers Market is a community,” says Kempf. “It is a very welcoming, inclusive, homelike feel, and you miss that in the winter. You rush into a grocery store, you rush into work and you don’t spend time outside with other people as much as you do in the summer. The winter market gives people that community outlet that they need during those dark, cold months.”
After 40 years in business, the Woodstock Farmers Market has grown exponentially in size and popularity, from a casual get-together of farmers selling out of their trucks to a serious, consistent market that’s been ahead of its time. In fact, the American Farmland Trust has named Woodstock as the No. 2 best market in Illinois, the fourth in the Midwest and the 12th best nationwide. The public is invited to vote at markets.farmland.org.
“While we’ve grown, that feeling of it being a true farmers market remains because of that blueprint that was laid out so long ago,” says Kempf.
The Woodstock Farmers Market is held on the Historic Square every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. through October. For more information visit woodstockfarmersmarket.org.