After seven years and a near-total rebuilding of Homewood Farmers Market, Kate Duff plans to leave her role as market manager at the end of the 2021 summer season.
Next year, the Homewood resident also will retire from her full-time job at The University of Chicago Press and move back to her native Canada to be closer to family. Right now, though, Duff is focused on enjoying her last summer of catering to market visitors.
When Duff moved to Homewood in 2005, she said the village had a small farmers market hosted at a local church parking lot. In 2009, Duff got together with her friend and fellow gardener, Nancy Spiegel, to start Homewood Kitchen Gardens. They began selling overflow from their home gardens, and that evolved to offering unique produce items and natural products.
By 2012, the market had moved to the parking lot of the village hall complex. Homewood officials wanted to recreate the event as a French market, and engaged in a two-year contract with the management firm Bensidoun USA.
At that time, Duff coordinated with Bensidoun as the village’s on-site market manager and she said she witnessed the company’s struggle to engage vendors.
“Bensidoun does the farmers market in downtown Chicago, and their vendor pool is mostly north and west of the city. They didn’t have any vendors who would traditionally come south,” Duff said. “The market limped along, but it didn’t feel connected to the community.”
When its contract with Bensidoun ended in 2014, the village retook control of the farmers market and hired Duff as manager. She said a good working relationship with the village gave her the freedom to envision the market with local vendors, more amenities and a new attitude.
To start, Duff and village staffers decided the market should be an integral part of the village’s overall events schedule, tying it to all the other activities that unite the community.
“There are different flavors of farmers markets — some are farmer-focused; then there’s markets for the foodies; then there are farmers markets in place to address food deserts,” Duff said.
“We wanted to have elements of all that, but we primarily saw the market as a community event. We wanted it to be a place where you could shop, connect with your neighbors and get entertained.”
In addition to featuring live music, Duff said the market always reserves space for local nonprofit organizations to connect with local residents and engender support.
Allisa Opyd, events and community relations manager for the village of Homewood, said Duff took the lead in recruiting farmers to sell at the farmers market. All vendors are within a 100-mile radius of Homewood, bringing produce from Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.
“She took the lead on how to get the farmers there,” Opyd said. “That was the most important thing — to have the integrity of a real farmers market. That’s what Kate has been able to do.”
Hosting the market in crisis times
The farmers market’s future felt threatened in summer 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down events throughout the region. Duff said she faced difficulty trying to figure out how to host the farmers market safely, obeying rules from the Cook County Department of Public Health.
Before her job in publishing, Duff worked as an environmental research scientist. With a background in science and what Opyd called her “methodical” nature, Duff coordinated a successful 2020 season, with help from volunteers and a series of precautions.
“We didn’t even know if we’d have a summer market in 2020, but a lot of the vendors were pulling for it, and we were afraid that if we didn't have it, the vendors might not come back,” Duff said.
“We did a survey of vendors from 2020, and they had a good year. Attendance was down, but sales were not.”
People saw the market as a safe place to shop, Duff said. Though it lost “the browsers,” the market offered a way for some local residents to buy fresh produce in a controlled environment.
Along with her farmers market work, Duff said she likes to volunteer, and she also served on the board of directors for the Irons Oaks Foundation. Her children, Meg and Will Doran, attended Flossmoor Montessori Academy and H-F High School.
During her time managing the summer farmers market, Duff also launched Homewood’s indoor Winter Market and the Wednesday Night Market, which evolved to offer a more “block party” atmosphere, she said.
Leaning into that change, Duff made food vendors the focus of Wednesday’s market, adding live entertainment and kids activities. She also insists that fresh fruits and vegetables are sold at every market, she said.
According to Opyd, the fun and safe Wednesday Night Market offers an example of Duff’s insight and adaptability.
“She was able to tap into what residents were looking for, knowing that Homewood wants quality and they also want to have fun,” Opyd said.
As Duff moves on, Homewood is looking for a new farmers market manager. The independent contractor position has several responsibilities, and Duff said the village is open to having two or more people split the job and work as a team.
“Farmers market management is a big commitment. You’re on site from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday for 24 weeks in the summer,” Duff said.
It’s a good job for community-oriented people who like to be outside, she said, but they also must know some aspects of business and have strong organizational skills. No one could do the job alone, Duff said, and she credits partners at the village of Homewood with helping her.
Likewise, Opyd said she learned a great deal from Duff. She credited her with growing the Homewood Farmers Market, which she said is 39 years old.
“Kate is an extraordinary leader and partner. That’s why we’ve had successes every single year,” Opyd said. “It takes an extraordinary person, who already works a full time position, to take on a weekly summer market, a Wednesday night market, as well as a winter market.”
In addition to all those offerings, Duff had planned to expand the Winter Market to include the months of November and December before the pandemic derailed things. She hopes the new manager will be able to revive and enlarge the Winter Market.
“One of my long-term goals was to make the market an all-year event, which would be beneficial to vendors and the community,” she said. “I hope the new person will be able to see through that goal.”