Illustration by Rob Donnelly
When South Milwaukee decided to resurrect its farmers market in 2009, organizers struggled to find a suitable day to hold the market. They knew they couldn’t compete with nearby Bay View’s booming South Shore Farmers Market on Saturday, so organizers took a chance on Thursday night.
Five years ago, a Thursday farmers market was rare, but the gamble paid off. The South Milwaukee Downtown Market has flourished, and its founder Mayor Erik Brooks credits that to its 3-7 p.m. Thursday time slot.
“Thankfully, we got in at the start of this proliferation of farmers markets,” Brooks says. “Competition is always a challenge. I believe every community has enough customers to have a farmers market. The problem is finding the vendors to fill it. Luckily, we’ve established a good vendor base.”
The surge of markets in recent years has given consumers across southeast Wisconsin an abundance of organic fresh fruit and vegetable options, but it’s also created intense competition for vendors.
Although many of the long-established or more popular markets, such as the Fox Point Farmers Market, East Side Green Market or Tosa Farmers Market, have waiting lists for local sellers clamoring to gain access to eager customers, newer or smaller markets are struggling to fill their booths, forcing them to be more creative in their efforts to thrive or even survive.
Emily Linn, assistant director of the East Town Association, which runs the East Town Market in Cathedral Square on Saturday mornings, says during its nearly 20-year run, the market has gone through ups and downs and is a lot smaller than it used to be. Last summer, Linn had roughly 80 vendors on her roster; however, only about 40 typically attended each week.
“It is more difficult than you would think to find farmers who want to sell at your market,” Linn says. “South Shore is huge and Tosa has done well, so that definitely affects us. This year, our focus is on prepared food offerings, more food trucks and other experiences people can’t get elsewhere, like yoga. Something to give people a reason to come.”
In Milwaukee County, there were some 20 farmers markets last summer, about a dozen in Waukesha County, and several more in Ozaukee and Washington counties.
Jeff Wasielewski, owner of Sweet Delight Kettle Corn in Muskego, is approached all the time by market organizers who want to include his product in their lineup, but he is committed to three markets a season: the Greendale Open Market, South Milwaukee Downtown Market and Butler Farmers Market.
“There are always new markets popping up, and a lot of them never get off the ground,” Wasielewski says. “For us, it’s all about scheduling. Farmers markets are very good for us financially, but we do have other events that are more profitable and larger. We chose Greendale because its 10 Saturdays a year instead of 20 like most of them, and South Milwaukee and Butler are during the week. Otherwise, it’s too hard to commit.”
When the Garden District Neighborhood Association started a market on Sixth Street and Howard Avenue in 2012, organizer Julia O’Connor says the association decided to begin the market at 1 p.m., hoping vendors would come from the South Shore market and sell what they had left over. So far, that strategy has worked. But O’Connor says there is still a lot of competition for vendors.
“There are so many people interested in buying local and buying fresh, and I do believe there are a larger number of farmers than there were many years ago,” says O’Connor.
The fact that local farmers are in high demand bodes well for farmers and, ultimately, consumers, she says. “The challenges are heartening, in many respects.”