Farmers Market Preview: No Bad Strawberry Karma

I'm someone who is devoted to farmers markets, yearns for the season to begin, eagerly awaits CSA drop days, and luxuriates on the idea of a canvas tote and an open-air shopping experience. Abby Schilling, owner of Mick Klug Farms, is preaching to the choir when she says that nothing bad could happen from you supporting a farmer at a farmers market. And although I’d love to linger in my gingham and European streetscape daydream while talking about terroirs and varietals, the serious side to all of this is that something bad could happen if you don’t support your farmers, gingham or not.

“If you enjoy shopping at farmers markets and think it’s important, the only way they are still going to be there is if you frequent them,” said Schilling. “I think a lot of people love the idea but we really need you to make those buying choices or they will go by the wayside, we need that support or else it wouldn’t be worthwhile for us to attend them.”

Your local farmers market is not just about the experience or the income streams funneling towards good economic and environmental vibes, but as Schilling shared, when things are picked ripe, they taste better, they have more nutrients, and they aren’t sitting in a box for a week. Sure, for strawberries in particular, you will most likely pay double what you would have paid at the grocery store. But those grocer growers are able to sell for a low price because they are mass produced with not a lot of regulations and the cost of labor in other countries is far less. The grocery store strawberries are arriving from all over the world. Even if produced in the United States, the strawberries are picked underripe, and shipped from California or, cringe, Florida.

Mick Klug strawberries at a Chicago Farmer's Market.

“The flavor isn’t going to be there, the quality isn’t going to be there, the way it was raised may not be in the most humane and upstanding way. What regulations of that country of origin does that country have? How are they treating their workers? What are their workers paid? You have to consider the carbon footprint of those things coming from across the world to your local grocery store,” Schilling said. “Where at the farmers market, it was picked a day before, two days before, at a reputable farm, within 100 miles so the carbon footprint is so much lower. We are treating our workers fairly and paying them a living wage and housing them.”

Schilling’s grandparents started the farm in the 1930s with 40 acres. The farm was passed down to her father who has been working alongside Schilling as she takes the reins with her husband, Mark, and his brother, Ben and his wife Bae Schilling. Schilling’s grandparents ran the farm the same way as Schilling runs it now: a great many different crops now covering over 120 acres. Besides giving people what they want by not just focusing on one crop, growing a lot of varieties extends their season and promotes sustainability.

“We raise a little of a lot of different things, where industrial farms are more concentrated on very few varieties. The biodiversity of an industrial farm is much less than the great biodiversity on our farm,” said Schilling. “We grow asparagus, strawberries, rhubarb, different types of tree fruit, tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, we have a very diverse line up of crops we grow.”

Year after year, the same crops aren’t being planted in the same patches of earth. The farmers at Mick Klug are focused on retaining nutrient density not only in the fresh picked food you purchase at the markets but in the soil that the vegetables and fruits grow in. Rotating the crops naturally reduces the need for fertilizer and is a huge part of running a sustainable farm. The dirt is healthy, the fruits and veggies are fresh, and only the loving hands of farmers have touched each item you buy. At each step along the growing process, Schilling and her team are thinking about environmental impact as much as flavor impact.

“Some people don’t realize what all goes into it, everything is hand planted, hand pruned, hand picked, hand packed. A machine is not doing that work, it's humans,” Schilling said.

Despite the incentives of being environmentally friendly, the most delicious, and keeping farms in family hands instead of corporations where CEOs never touch the land, farmers across the US are struggling. Which means farmers markets will follow suit. If you won’t do it for the earth, agricultural entrepreneurship, and your own health, please at least do it for me and my farmers market wardrobe, europhile tendencies, and endless desire to devour the seasons.

“Unfortunately, I think we are going to continue to lose US farmers, the average age of a farmer is quite old, the younger generation doesn’t want to be involved because not only is it a tremendous amount of work but a tremendous amount of stress,” said Schilling. “Once the leading generation retires or passes away you see a lot of the land being sold and corporations take over. Which is sad, and why it’s important to support your local farmers markets and encourage your local grocer to carry local produce.”

Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!

Picture of the author
Caroline Huftalen

Caroline L. Huftalen received her MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design, making her running tab of degrees people find frivolous: 2. Her work can be found on Buskingattheseams.com, SurvivorsProject.org, Windy City Reviews, and other publications. She lives in Chicago and is working on her first novel.