Someone at the city’s Department of Consumer Services must have had a good laugh after coming up with this one: on the last Sunday of the month a farmers’ market will be held in Lincoln Park’s Farm-in-the-Zoo, lending an added touch of authenticity as real farmers sell their produce amid the zoo’s chickens, horses, and pigs. On the last Sunday in June, though, the vendors aren’t laughing. Business is slow, and the hot, whiny four-year-olds frequenting the Farm-in-the-Zoo haven’t put their parents in the mood for grocery shopping.

“This is kind of a piddly market,” grumbles Todd Nichols, 15, of Nichols Farm and Orchards, a 140-acre fruit and vegetable farm in Morengo. “But if you want to get into the downtown markets, you have to do a few of the other ones on the side.”

The city’s annual summer series of farmers’ markets officially opened two days before the Lincoln Park offering. A bustling market in Daley Plaza was followed by a flurry of community markets over the weekend in various neighborhoods. Regardless of the turnout, say the farmers, they bring their best each time: root onions, homegrown tomatoes, fava beans, cherry butter, broccoli, cauliflower, new potatoes, Italian garlic, exotic mushrooms, Russian kale–a startling and colorful array of produce that might have come from a Roald Dahl fantasyland of giant peaches and outsize strawberries.

The farmers own spreads ranging from 10 to 200 acres, on the smaller end of the scale for farms statewide (the average farm in Illinois is 351 acres). Many farmers work in longtime family operations, but others are new to farming–businesspeople who’ve left the corporate world to return to the land. Todd Nichols’s father, for example, used to work at Trans World Airlines (where Todd’s mother is still a flight attendant). In the mid-70s he purchased a few acres of land in Morengo and began farming part-time. The farm grew–today it produces 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables, including 15 subtly different kinds of strawberries–and now Todd and his siblings, along with a crew of about ten Mexican migrant workers, work the markets and till the land. (“We would hire Americans,” says the young Nichols, “but they’re too lazy.”) Grandfather Tony Nichols helps sell produce at the farmers’ markets; with his cheery countenance, he could be a character from Laura Ingalls Wilder, but in fact he was a trucker for most of his life. “What he really is, is a salesman,” says Todd Nichols.

Judi and George Peters, the suntanned couple hawking Doud Orchards’s wares at the Farm-in-the-Zoo, tell a similar story. The 100-acre orchard has been in the Doud family for over a century. The Peterses lived in Kansas City until a few years ago, when George Peters got laid off from JCPenney after 25 years; he moved to the midwest to work for his friend Steve Doud and would like to own a farm of his own someday if it weren’t so expensive. Most of Doud Orchards’s other laborers are housewives who work part-time for minimum wage several months a year “so they can earn money for Christmas,” according to Judi Peters. The Peterses are glad to be at Doud Orchards. “I worked with computers all the time, and I never cared for it anytime,” says George Peters. “I would rather work outside than inside, even when it’s zero degrees outside.”

Farmers’ markets may seem quaint, but they’re an important source of income for small farmers in northeastern Illinois. The number of markets in the state has increased over the past decade, with most of the growth occurring in Chicago. In 1984 the city had 13 markets; this year it has 28. City planning has contributed to the growth as much as consumer demand; to get a spot in one of the downtown markets, farmers agree to service the far less lucrative community markets as well, some of which–particularly those on the south and west sides–are especially unpopular among vendors. Connie Buscemi of the Department of Consumer Services attributes the variations in producer attendance to market conditions: some neighborhoods have more foot traffic and more people interested in purchasing fresh strawberries. But some young farmers admit another reason for staying away; going out to the Lawndale markets, says one, can be “kind of scary.”

Still, the markets are a good deal for small farmers; they keep all the money they earn (and also get to advertise their roadside stands and pick-your-own extravaganzas back home). The Nichols family, for example, sells all its produce at the markets. According to Rick Breeden of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association, farmers typically make 21 cents on each dollar that consumers spend on food; the rest goes to wholesale merchants, transportation, and the local store. But at a farmers’ market, all the money goes straight into the vendor’s pocket–as much as $4,000 on a good day.

In fact the markets are so profitable that not everyone in a straw hat is a farmer. According to some people at the markets, vendors masquerading as farmers have been known to buy produce wholesale and sell it at inflated prices. (Buscemi denies that this is a problem: all vendors undergo extensive background checks to verify that they own farms.) But small farmers seldom live like kings; one-third of Illinois farms have annual sales under $25,000, and a majority of the state’s farmers work away from the farm at least part of the year.

The farmers’ markets are good business precisely because they reinvent traditions of a world gone by. They sell more than abundant produce and delicious preserves: they sell an image of the old farm-town midwest, before neighborhood grocery stores were edged out by retail giants, before farmland in northeastern Illinois was transformed into mile after mile of cookie-cutter suburbs (the state lost over a million acres of farmland between 1987 and 1992), and before corporations took over farming. Maybe the pull of farmers’ markets is the same force that draws worn-out executives back to the farm. Farming connotes independence, autonomy, a bit of land for one’s own. Never mind that small farmers earn lousy livings–the dream of being your own boss, of producing rather than consuming, lives on.

Downtown markets are every Tuesday at the Federal Building Plaza, every other Thursday (next one is July 17) at the Prudential Building Plaza, and every other Thursday (next one is July 24) at Daley Plaza. Tuesday community markets are in East Side (102nd and J Ave., monthly, starting July 15); Far North (Western and Albion, monthly, starting July 29); Jefferson Park (Milwaukee and Ainslie, every other week, starting July 15); and Lincoln Square (Lincoln, Leland, and Western, weekly). Wednesday markets are in Lawndale (Grenshaw and Homan, weekly); Logan Square (Logan and Kedzie, weekly); and South Shore (71st and Jeffrey, weekly). Thursday’s market is in Hyde Park (52nd Place and Harper Court, weekly). Saturday markets take place weekly in Austin (Iowa and Central); Edgewater (Winthrop and Thorndale); Englewood (63rd and Halsted); Gately (103rd and Cottage Grove); Lincoln Park (Armitage and Halsted); Morgan Park/Beverly (95th and Ashland); Mount Greenwood (111th and Christiana); Near North (Division and State); Near South (29th and King); North Center (Belle Plaine, Lincoln, and Damen); Lakeview (Grace, Broadway, and Halsted); and Printers Row (Polk and Dearborn). Sunday markets are in Beverly (95th and Longwood, monthly, starting July 13); at the Lincoln Park Zoo (in the Farm-in-the-Zoo, last Sunday of each month); in Rogers Park (Arthur and Sheridan, monthly, starting July 13); at Taylor and Racine (last Sunday of each month); and in Bucktown (Wabansia and Wood, monthly, starting July 20). The markets will run until the end of October. Call 312-744-9187. –Kim Phillips-Fein

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Todd and Tony Nichols/ peas photos by Jim Alexander Newberry.