Keith Johnson isn't much for attention. A key driver of the Woodstock Farmer's Market for the past twenty-plus years, he simply wants to connect local food producers with satisfied customers.
"There is so much satisfaction seeing a good product go out to people who appreciate the product," says the soft-spoken Johnson. A "producer's only market" that is recognized as one of the top farmer's markets in the state--and country--the Woodstock Farmer's Market has been connecting local farmers and makers with fresh, healthy food for 30 years.
What started as a Saturday morning market now spans Tuesday's and Saturday's from 8am to 1pm May through October. And in the winter, the market moves indoors on Saturdays from November through April at the McHenry County Fairgrounds.
Johnson got involved in the mid-90s when the market was losing money and in danger of disappearing. Along with Sue Klemm and Jean Niemann, Johnson stepped up to take on the task of turning around and growing the Woodstock Farmer's Market through the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce. Market rules were established, spaces laid out and budgets established. (In 2004, the market became its own entity.) Today, the market brings together about 40 vendors on Saturday's and about 30 on Tuesday's with hundreds coming from all over the area to buy fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, baked goods--even woolen products, flowers and hand-crafted hanging baskets.
One new vendor is Olano's Empanadas. Husband and wife duo Alex and Les Olano started selling their Peruvian treats in 2013 based on a homemade recipe from Alex's grandmother. They have taken that recipe and evolved it into 14 different flavors they now sell. "The atmosphere at the Woodstock Farmer's Market is amazing. We love the variety of vendors at the Woodstock Farmer's Market, and that everyone has to make what they sell here - not all markets are like that. Everyone has a passion about their products."
Another vendor, Van Laars Fruit Farm, has been a Woodstock Farmer's Market favorite for five-plus years, providing everything from freshly grown strawberries to tomatoes, sweet corn, apples and -- new this year -- freshly baked European sourdough bread.
The Market's only co-op vendor is Sitka Salmon based out of Alaska. Currently in its first full year at the Market, the co-op is made up of a community of family-owned fisheries. All fish are filleted, then individually vacuum-sealed and flash-frozen to -60 degrees Fahrenheit. You can find wild Alaskan king salmon, black bass, Dungeness crab, yelloweye, and more every Tuesday and Saturday on the historic Woodstock Square.
Johnson is proud that the Farmer’s Market now offers a matching LINK card program. The LINK card enables those on food stamps (people making roughly $20,000 per year or less) to shop at the Farmer's Market for fresh food with a $25 match. "I love this program because it benefits the people who need it most," says Johnson. "The poorest among us typically have the hardest time getting fresh, healthy food as a staple in their diet."
According to Woodstock City Councilman and Promote Woodstock Board Member Maureen Larson, Johnson has helped create “not just a market, but an experience."
"High quality foods, fresh fruits and vegetables and beautiful things presented by the people who make and grow them with such pride - it's the perfect antidote to the faceless retail experiences that are more typical these days,” says Larson. “A stroll around the historic Square with a cup of coffee, a hot empanada in hand and a bag full of produce for our own Farm-to-Table dinner - that's a perfect morning."
So what keeps Johnson engaged and excited? He says the plan for the Woodstock Farmer’s Market is to keep growing, bringing in vendors whose passion is to create quality products. “I like to see our vendors grow,” says Johnson. “These are hard-working families who are following a dream – seeing them succeed makes this all worthwhile.”