Loyal customers find Sterling market’s core vendors competitive on price, freshness

‘We’re ahead of the game’ on vendor interest for warm-weather outdoor season, Twin City Farmers Market manager says

Dustin Gray and Joy Sosi of the Bakers Union sell breads rolls and other treats Saturday, March 25, 2023.

STERLING – Twin City Farmers Market along the Sterling riverfront has been a local produce staple since 2005 and, despite inflation and a national anxiety around the economy, continues to attract loyal consumers and vendors.

The indoor market – located at 106 Avenue A in Sterling and operated as a 501 c3 not for profit by Sterling Main Street – is open every Saturday from 8 a.m. until noon with five year-long vendors.

For six months out of the year, from May until October Twin City Farmers Market runs operations outdoors, underneath the produce building’s pavilion area. During the outdoor season, depending on the week, the market hosts an additional 40 or more vendors, Sterling Main Street marketing assistant Lori VanOosten said.

As of March 22, 36 vendors already have signed up to for the an outdoor space at the Twin City Farmers Market.

“I feel like we’re ahead of the game this year,” VanOosten said. “I’m already getting to some weeks with only a few spaces left, which is always great.”

All of the products sold at the market are handmade or home grown, and VanOosten said the focus is on farm fresh produce.

When the egg prices went crazy, people came to the market because they were actually farm fresh better eggs and they were cheaper at the time.”

—  Lori VanOosten, Sterling Main Street marketing assistant

Charlin Nolan and her husband, Fred, are the owners and landscapers of Sterling Gardens, a vendor at Twin City Farmers Market.

Charlin Nolan has a horticulture degree from Kishwaukee College in DeKalb County. She and her husband began their landscape and horticulture business after she lost her job at General Electric and her husband lost his job at Illinois Forge more than 15 years ago.

“I grew a lot of gardens for people from Chicago that had houses out here but didn’t actually live in them, but they wanted gardens when they came with their cousins and aunts and all that stuff,” Nolan said. “So, in the meantime, I had all these vegetables, so we started taking them to the farmers market.”

They were among the first vendors at Twin City Farmers Market and have since become a known staple in the community.

“They call me the Tomato Lady because I’m well known for having Mighty Vine tomatoes, and I have them year-round,” Charlin Nolan said. “I go every Friday up to Rochelle, pick them up at Mighty Vine, at the greenhouses there.”

Inflation has affected everything from gas prices to groceries to the cost to operate a farm over the past year, but Nolan said she thinks Twin City Farmers Market is doing “OK.”

“Groceries are so expensive, and I think the market now is far more competitive with supermarkets, plus people know they’ve got something that’s really going to taste good,” she said.

Speaking from her perspective of managing the market, VanOosten said she doesn’t think any economic woes have hindered the market this winter.

“I don’t feel like anything economy-wise has affected our market,” VanOosten said. “We have a consistent base of customers that come every Saturday, and then every Saturday we see new people.”

Overall inflation has affected markets across the country but when egg prices rose sharply in 2022 farmers markets found themselves in a unique position.

Before a bird flu outbreak, rising feed, fuel and labor costs doubled price of U.S. eggs in a year, VanOosten said consumers as far east as the suburbs of Chicago come to Twin City Farmers Market to get farm fresh eggs from Hollyhock Hill Farms.

“When the egg prices went crazy, people came to the market because they were actually farm fresh better eggs and they were cheaper at the time,” VanOosten said.

Pam Machan, part owner of Farm House and Fancy, a part-time operation that sells wooden, ceramic or glass handmade crafts at Twin City Farmers Market, said she recently talked about the impact of the economy on craft vendor markets to a friend.

“In 2021, people were dying to get out,” Machan said. “They were buying everything. I mean, you just couldn’t have enough inventory. And then in 2022 they took away all the stimulus money, they took away the – I’ll call it extra money – and things started to go up in price, as far as groceries stores and all that stuff too.”

After hardly selling any items at craft fairs in 2022, Machan said she’s adjusting course for 2023, and among the safest places to operate a stall out is Twin City Farmers Market.

Machan said she thinks Farm House and Fancy pays $10 for a double-booth at the market, which she said is considerably less than craft fairs or other options.

“If you don’t sell a lot it’s not horrible because it doesn’t cost you a lot,” Machan said. “A lot of times you rent space at an existing store, and they want, oh, one, two, $300 a month just to have your space, so you have to sell a lot. But this is a little bit more laid back, where it’s not that expensive.”

After 15 years in downtown Sterling, Nolan said the market has become its own community.

“A farmers market is a face, a place and a taste. You get to know a person,” she said. “You come to the farmers market and you buy eggs from Joe Rever, and when egg prices went crazy, he still had his eggs at pretty much the same price. You could talk to Joe and whoever else. ... It’s a little community of its own really.”

Camden Lazenby

Camden Lazenby

Camden Lazenby covers DeKalb County news for the Daily Chronicle.