A year-round online farmers market that started small more than a decade ago in Champaign County now has attracted dozens of local vendors and a growing number of customers – many driving from Clark County to pick up their orders.
“This farmers market has been a labor of love,” says Pamela Bowshier, who is one of two volunteer co-managers of Champaign Locally Grown
, the virtual market that offers weekly pickups south of Urbana.
The initial years of the online market, which went live in 2012, were tough, and the market grew slowly, Bowshier says. The very first market attracted five customers – who all still order, she says – but it has now grown to average about 50 orders each week.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an explosion of interest, with its contactless orders and pickups. Some customers even place occasional orders from an hour away.
Those customers can choose items from about 40 local vendors, selling various foods and in-season produce, like eggs, meat, microgreens, berries, garlic, asparagus, cheese, honey, maple syrup, spices, jams, baked goods and more.
“I tell people you can do your grocery shopping here,” she says.
Most items come from Champaign County, some from Clark County and a very few from beyond. Vendors’ addresses include Urbana and Springfield, but also places like St. Paris, Cable, Mutual, Mechanicsburg and Medway.
All items must come from the vendors’ own hands or soil, Bowshier says.
“It’s a sight-unseen market,” Bowshier says, and customers trust that only quality vendors are permitted to sell their products.
Customers place their orders on the Champaign Locally Grown website each week between Thursday evening and Tuesday morning. Vendors are then notified what items they have sold and drop them off at a designated location before customers pick up their purchases.
Many of the vendors participate in seasonal in-person farmers markets as well, and Bowshier doesn’t see Champaign Locally Grown as a competitor to any of those that exist throughout the county. Instead, the market is a convenient way for vendors to sell their items while customers can support local businesses all year long.
“Consumer-wise, it’s just easy year-round access to those products,” says Mark Runyan, who co-manages the market with Bowshier.
Both Bowshier and Runyan used to be regular vendors at traditional markets. Bowshier’s artisan Cosmic Charlie Bread
appeared there and at several other local places, like the now-closed Seasons Bistro in Springfield and her own former storefront inside Clark County’s Heritage Center.
Runyan is a longtime pork producer who owns Oakview Farm Meats
, the farm where customers pick up their Champaign Locally Grown orders. Bowshier and Runyan also co-own a small catering company focused on local foods, called Hippie and the Farmer
Runyon calls the virtual market “very producer-friendly.” Not only can time-crunched vendors skip the need to wait for buyers at a traditional market, but they also can freshly pick or bake exactly what they need for the virtual market, eliminating leftovers. Customers see benefits, too.
“This is like a one-stop shop for the products,” he says.
Bowshier says customers know the origins of their Champaign Locally Grown food, without paying extra for it to be trucked long distances. Their purchases help both their own nutrition and the local economy.
“They’re not only getting good food, but they’re getting a good value for their food,” she says.
Bowshier also is proud of teaching others about what seasonal food really means and of educating customers, such as the time when the market was asked why there were no pineapples for sale.
A new customer might initially buy a jar of honey from Champaign Locally Grown, or perhaps some local meat or fresh asparagus. They then realize the “night and day” difference between that and what they have purchased at big box stores, Bowshier says. They soon return.
“The next week they’re back for more and more and more,” she says.