- Associated Press - Friday, July 17, 2015

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - Decatur is surrounded by lush farmland producing food most often destined for other locations. But with the arrival of summer farmers markets and roadside stands, some of that produce is being redirected straight to consumers who like the fresh food and connecting with local farmers.

Illinois ranks third in the U.S. for the number of farmers markets according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. And they’re growing both in numbers and what they sell.

In 2012, the state expanded what could be sold at farmer’s markets with a cottage food law that allowed farmers and other entrepreneurs to make certain foods in home kitchens. Now, new legislation is awaiting a signature from Gov. Bruce Rauner to allow for more food products beyond baked goods, jams and dried herbs.

One of the oldest ongoing markets in the area is the one in Central Park.

“That market goes back to during the Civil War,” said Pete Vercellino.

Vercellino manages the privately owned downtown market which he started selling produce in the 1980s. Before that, he remembers helping his father set up for what was then a twice weekly market. It’s now down to every Saturday starting this weekend.

“We’re not big, but there’s not much we don’t have,” Vercellino said.

Vendors vary every week, but the inaugural weekend will host about eight farmers selling tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, green onions, strawberries, lettuce and other produce started in green houses to get a head start on the growing season.

The Mount Zion Heroic Age Arts Center’s first farmer’s market starts today.

“Hopefully, we’re going to have a really good turnout,” said founder Sue Russotti.

Besides fruits, vegetables, honey and flowers, the Thursday markets will also showcase craft vendors and musicians. She hopes the weeknight event will pull in people going to Chill on the Hill and give vendors more opportunities to sell fast-growing crops.

“I think Mount Zion is going to like that it’s theirs,” Russotti said.

Urban farmer Cheyanne Marston will split her time between the Richland and Mount Zion markets this summer. Marston is an agriculture student at Richland. The full-time occupational therapist has been selling herbs and vegetables at Richland for three years and is looking forward to sharing recipes and talking about unfamiliar produce with a new audience at the Art Center.

The Denver native said she’s developed a niche audience in the Hispanic community by selling tomatillos, jalapenos and cilantro. Last year, she grew 1,700 pounds of produce on less than one acre of land. She’s also started a small CSA, community share agriculture, this year in which people pay to get a share of fresh produce every week.

“I would really love to quit my job (to) farm,” Marston said.

And the markets may help her grow enough customers to do that. While she hopes to become a full-time farmer someday, Marston’s outgoing personality means she’ll always want to talk to people about food.

“I need that interaction at the farmers markets,” Marston said. “The majority of people want to feel a connection with you.”

Vercellino said his market is certified through the Department of Agriculture, so they focus more on fresh produce than craft products.

“We treat this more like truly a farmers market,” he said.

Farmers markets have changed through the years. Vercellino has seen more regulations put in place as the markets grow, but there are fewer farmers to go around. He said with fewer home gardens, shoppers are curious about locally produced food.

“People ask questions today and it’s not the same questions they ask at the box stores,” Vercellino said.

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Source: (Decatur) Herald & Review,

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Information from: Herald & Review, https://www.herald-review.com

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