This is one in a series of posts highlighting the four winners of our summer long America’s Favorite Farmers Markets™ contest.
Farmers often have a personal connection with their local public markets. Whether it’s the interaction with neighbors-turned-customers, or the added boost in revenue, regional markets offer a unique place for food producers to sell their goods. For market president Lonny LeFever, the Champaign County Farmers Market in Urbana, Ohio, is more than just a welcome location to sell his produce. It’s a reminder of what’s really important in life.
The market is nestled in the historic section of Urbana. Held every Saturday from May to October, the Champaign County Farmers Market is a vendor-operated market in the truest sense. Every board of director member must be an active vendor, and the five-year plan calls for adding a second day to the market’s schedule, eventually using a permanent structure to hold a market five days a week.
But for now, customers have a wide assortment of produce and hand-crafted goods to purchase. The first market was held in 1998 and was relatively unorganized, with most vendors selling corn and tomatoes. “I didn’t plan on becoming president,” LeFever recalls, ”but my mind was made up that we needed a good farmers market since we lived in an agricultural community.”
In 2008, the board of directors for the market decided to create a five-year plan. They started a “buy local, eat local” branding campaign, and managed to attract and retain about 28 vendors. LeFever says vendors take pride in their products, and the community and local government shows a great deal of support to their local market.
The market tries to cater to the underprivileged residents in the county by accepting EBT Tokens and WIC. “We serve the whole community, not just the people that have the money to do it,” LeFever says. “We keep prices competitive to local stores.” The market also helps boost outside business. Visitors will drive into town, fill up on gas, eat downtown and purchase delicious food from the many family farmers.
“We are located in an area where some people struggle and many people are just trying to survive,” he says. “The unemployment rate is terrible. Bringing EBT and the WIC program into our market, it enabled us to grow our business, and people who were left out before can come to the market and purchase good food.”
Winning a top award in America’s Favorite Farmers Market means quite a lot to LeFever. “It made me feel good,” he says. “I worked very hard to get it to this point, but I never thought we’d get this.” Since winning, the community is alive with support for their local market.
LeFever spent much of his early life in Champaign County, so he is very familiar with the agricultural nature of the region. But at 16, when he graduated from high school, he moved away from home to try to make a life for himself away from his small hometown. A diagnosis of liver cancer brought him back home years later, and he says having cancer made him realize what’s really important.
“We’re all given challenges in life,” he says. “You can either lie down and let them run over you, or you can say no, I’m not going to let that happen—I’m going to live.” Now at the age of 58, he’s been diagnosed with cancer four times, but each time he’s dug deeper to survive. Farming and the Champaign County market has certainly kept him busy, and helped him live a simpler, more focused life.
Perhaps it’s the positive and welcoming atmosphere of the market that provided some extra strength during some hard times for LeFever. People come to the market, local restaurants bring hot coffee or ice tea, and customers end up sticking around to visit with their neighbors.
Vendors at the Champaign County Farmers Market are like a community. “If you are a bit late, you’ll have a fellow vendor helping you set up,” LeFever says. “The whole goal is to provide local, quality food. We try to educate people about where their food comes from and explain why our products last longer and have better nutrition. We stay very involved with our community and always try to make sure the customer comes first.”