Downtown Champaign is having a moment. Last month, we shared the location of the new Common Ground Food Co-op, which will bring a grocery store to an area that doesn't currently have any. This month, The Land Connection will launch a new, weekly farmers' market. Beginning tomorrow (and each Tuesday through October) from 4-7 p.m., you can stop by the corner of Neil and Main Streets to pick up from fresh produce and other locally sourced and made items. I recently spoke with Cara Cummings, The Land Connection's Executive Director, about the new endeavor.  

Smile Politely: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Cara! Before we talk about the market, let’s talk about The Land Connection. What is it? What does it do?

Cara Cummings: The Land Connection is a nonprofit organization based in Champaign, and our mission is to train farmers in resilient, restorative farming techniques, inform the public about the sources of our food and why that matters, and to protect and enhance farmland.

We do this by offering a variety of programs for everyone from backyard gardeners to experienced farmers who are farming hundreds or even thousands of acres. Our longest running program, and what we are best known for, is a yearlong business planning course called Central Illinois Farm Beginnings. Students spend the winter months writing a business plan, and then in the spring they are connected to an experienced mentor for the growing season. The people who take this class range from young folks just out of college who have decided that they want to do work that is aligned with their values, to people who have retired and are starting a second career. Most of the people who take the class are interested in starting smaller diversified farms that might include fruits, vegetables, and livestock. Although we are starting to see more interest from people in small grains, and some who are interested in converting their conventional row crop operations to organic.

Some of our other workshops have included seed starting, seed saving, shitake log inoculation, agritourism, organic grain transition, maintaining small engines, and social media marketing. We also have a weekly newsletter, the Weekly Harvest, which is a great resource for people looking for farming related jobs, farmland, or learning about what workshops are going on in the region. And spring and summer are when we offer Farm Dreams, which are workshops designed for people who are farm-curious.

Most of our programs and workshops are held at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. This was a recent and exciting move for us, and the feedback has been really positive. Students like having class at a working farm, and they of course enjoy the meals—yes, that’s right, students’ lunches (and sometimes dinners) are prepared by the farm’s chef, Alisa Demarco.

SP: What made The Land Connection decide to organize a weekly market?

Cummings: When I first move to Champaign three and a half years ago, one of the first things I did was to start looking for the best places to buy food—I had come from California, and I was used to having markets available six days a week. So naturally I ended up at Urbana’s Market at the Square, and I became an owner of Common Ground Food Co-op. I loved them both, but I still missed having an evening market—somewhere to go after work and shop for food, find friends, and usually stop in somewhere for drinks or do other errands.

So finally, after talking about it for nearly three years, my words fell on the right ears and things started to come together. By January of this year we decided to go for it.

And because The Land Connection’s mission is to support farmers, it made sense to offer another marketing opportunity in our community. We expect that in addition to veteran market shoppers, the new location will attract people who don’t normally go to the Saturday market, which means more customers for the farmers. We are also excited to bring fresh, local, healthy food to an area that does not have a lot of grocery shopping options right now. We also hope that having a market downtown will inspire more chefs from our downtown restaurants to add locally grown ingredients to their menus.

SP: When is the market? Where is it? Which vendors can we expect to find?

Cummings: The downtown Champaign Farmers’ Market will be held on Tuesday evenings from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. in parking lot M (the one near the corner of Neil and Main).

This market will focus on locally grown food, which we are defining as grown within 150 miles of Champaign. The exceptions are things that do not grow in the Midwest, like seafood and coffee, and some businesses that offer value added products like baked goods.

The response has been great from vendors, and we have a great line up: Avery Farms, Boneyard Coffee and Tea, BRB Farm, Cary’s Garden of Eatin,’ East Place Produce, Green Pantry Nursery, Heirloominous Farm, Hopscotch: Cakes and Confections, Ludwig Farmstead Creamery, Meadowbrook Organic Farm, Pekara Bakery, Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, Prosperity Gardens, Schottman Sweet Corn, Sitka Salmon Shares, Sola Gratia Farm, South Prairie Street Farm, Stone Court Farm LLC, Sugar by Sarah, Tuckaway Farm, Vulcan Farm.

SP: Where do you encourage people to park?

Cummings: Parking will be very convenient. For the first year of the market, we are only using the south half of the parking lot. So the north half will still be open for parking. And, the market is directly across the street from the parking deck, and there is of course, always street parking. 

SP: What types of programming can we expect to find during the market, if any?

Cummings: We are still working on the lineup, but I can tell you that we have some fun things planned. We will have rotating musicians, kids’ activities, community poetry, and community groups will have the opportunity to rotate through a single tent. The calendar for these events will be updated on The Land Connection’s website.

We will also be offering a series of recipe cards that have simple seasonal recipes, with beautiful photos. The full boxed sets will be available to purchase, but we will also be giving one recipe per week away for free. So if you come to all the markets, you can collect all of the recipe cards!

SP: How were the time and location decided? What other organizations did you work with?

Cummings: I chose the time—admittedly because of that feeling I was talking about earlier. I love being able to leave my office in the afternoon, and walk straight to the market. Partly because it is convenient, but also because I like the vibe of activity downtown in the evening. And Tuesday seemed like it was great midweek option for food shopping and hopefully for visiting other downtown businesses.

The City of Champaign has been fantastic—they have helped with everything from parking logistics to marketing. The Champaign Center Partnership has also been great about helping us get the word out, and they hope to make the market part of their Conscious Cuisine program.

SP: Does The Land Connection offer programming elsewhere in the community?

Cummings: Yes! One of the programs we are working on right now is a collaboration with Urbana’s Market at the Square and Common Ground Food Co-op. We will be offering a series of cooking classes called Farm Fresh. They will be offered two times a month, and will focus on a fruit or vegetable that is in season and available at the markets. More information on that series is available on the Co-op’s website.

We are also adding new workshops all the time, many of which take place at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, and which are announced first in our Weekly Harvest newsletter, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

SP: Anything else you’d like to share with SP readers?

Cummings: We are really excited about our sponsorship program, in which half of the funds go toward doubling funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The response from downtown businesses has been great, and we hope to get even more people involved as we get the market going so that we can offer more fresh, healthy, foods to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

And of course we would love to see as many people at the new downtown Champaign Farmers’ Market as possible!

All photos courtesy of Cara Cummings.