While all of us enjoy talking to the farmers that supply our food and support our land, many of us don’t know what it’s like to be a farmer, and what goes into preparing for the weekly Wednesday and Saturday markets. In fact, harvesting, packing up, traveling to and from and working the farmer’s markets can be very physically taxing. Let me share with you a typical Friday/Saturday for two different farmers. Knowing this, we can thank our friends for their hard work and show them the respect they deserve!
Having worked for Heartland Meats at the market, I know that Pat and John Sondgeroth rise at 12:30 a.m. to load up the trucks and get to Green City Market by about 4 or 4:30 a.m. (a 2 ½ hour commute from Mendota, Ill.). John would set up the carts for me at Green City, then drop Pat off at the Evanston market, then drive back to Oak Park for that city’s market. I had it easy. I just had to show up at 6 a.m. to set up the tent, write in the prices for the day with a sharpie on the magnets and then slap them in place on the signs. Sometimes, if there was a lot of work to be done in the fields after loading up the truck, John won’t go to sleep at all.
The day doesn’t end after the Saturday market. Pat and John often stay overnight in the city to be able to do deliveries at restaurants in the afternoon, and then head out to the Mount Prospect farmer’s market the following day. By Tuesday, it was already time to pack up and load the truck for the next morning’s drive back to the city for the Wednesday Green City Market. Then the cycle continues for the weekend.
Leaning Shed Farm
For Leaning Shed Farm, Dave and Denise Dyrek, typically harvest their produce the day before the Wednesday and Saturday markets, rising early in the morning for five straight hours of “pretty back-breaking work,” Dave Dyrek says, noting that his brother- and sister-in-law will help out during peak harvest season. “Then we have some lunch and go back out to pick more produce for the market. Then we wash it and bunch it and make it look presentable. By the time we’re finished it’s a 12 hour day.”
A few months ago, the Dyrek family harvested as much as 40,000 garlic scapes. They’ve also spent four hours on strawberries alone.
Even after the 12-hour harvest, the work isn’t over. Dave loads up the truck, baskets, signs, tables, tents and all for the next day’s roughly two-hour trip to Chicago. “I try to get to sleep at 7:30 or 8 if possible on the night before market,” Dave says. “Then we wake up at about 2 a.m. Michigan time, 1 a.m. Chicago time. That’s one of the hardest things is the hours. On market days you have to get up early and the rest of the day all you want to do is sleep, but you don’t want to go to bed too early after the market and sleep that long. It’s also hard to get to sleep when it’s light out. Being a zombie about four days a week is what it’s all about during market season.”
Still, Dave says he loves being at the markets, meeting and talking to people, and he knows his customers like to meet and talk with him too. So the payoff is there.
Once arriving at the market, in the peak season it takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes to set up the booth so it’s presentable. Earlier and later in the season, it takes about an hour, Dave says. Even though he gets to the market around 4 a.m., he’s not able to set up until 4:30 a.m. because of city and market regulations. So it’s a little after 7 when he and Denise finish. Because the prices change by week, they use dry erase markers and wipe-off signs to write in all the prices for the between 50 and 70 different types of peppers and tomatoes.
After the market closes, the Dyreks will take home as much produce as they can to use and share with neighbors, while Denise takes some of the leftover onions and peppers, dehydrates them and makes them into spices. If it rains and it’s a particularly slow market day, they’ll donate the leftovers to the Lakeview Pantry. So, remember to stock up when you’re by the booth!
During pepper season at the peak of harvest, the Dyreks will bring in some extra help at the farm. “We could probably pick a few days before the markets, but I’m really into fresh produce so we try to get 100 percent done the day before the market,” Dave says.
On non-market days, the Dyreks spend most of their days planting new crops and rotating others, regularly checking for bugs, pests and weeds. Generally, it’s a seven-day-a-week job from April to the end of October, Dave says.