Farmers market continues indoors

Joe Schulz, Managing Editor

The Oshkosh Convention Center Ballroom fills with vendors selling fresh fruit, baked goods, crafts and a host of other wares each Saturday morning through Dec. 19.

The Oshkosh Winter Farmers Market continues to provide vendors from all over the region a space to make a living, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has forced the market to make some adjustments in order to keep both shoppers and sellers safe, Market Manager Michelle Schmid-Schultz said.

This includes requiring attendees to wear masks, limiting capacity to 50% and enforcing other social distancing procedures provided by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS).

The market is also “regulating people at the door” and placing hand sanitizer dispensers at each booth in efforts to “control social distancing and make it as safe as possible,” Schmid-Schultz said.

Although the market continues doing business, it is not the same experience for vendors and shoppers as before the pandemic.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a normal for a while,” she said. “I won’t even say it’s normal, but it’s just nice to have someplace else to go.”

There were several reasons for keeping the market open — the main one being supporting the market’s many vendors, who are all small business owners in their own right, Schmid-Schultz said.

Many of the vendors are proponents of sustainable agricultural practices, and the market provides a “needed place to sell their goods,” she said.

“A lot of the vendors are doing this not because it’s fun, but because they depend on the income,” the market manager said.

One of those vendors is Mike Stadler, who has been selling jelly at the Oshkosh Farmers Market for about a year.

He had a simple answer as to why he decided to continue selling at the market amid a pandemic.

“I gotta eat,” Stadler said.

The farmers market “is a necessity” for him; it is where he finds most of his customers, and helps build word-of-mouth for his Creekside Farms brand. He believes farmers markets play an important role in building fledgling businesses.

“I’ve been going to different markets and selling my products for about 20 years; I’ve built a pretty good customer base,” he said.

Aside from serving the vendors, the market helps provide a sense of normalcy for the community, Schmid-Schultz said.

“People are just grateful that we’re here, and that’s why you see the positive vibe,” she said. “The vendors are happy to have a place to sell, and the people coming here are happy to be able to connect with their favorite vendors.”

Even so, the market has seen an estimated 50% dip in both vendors and attendees, which Schmid-Schultz attributed to both the restrictions designed to limit the spread of coronavirus and the general uncertainty of being out in public.

“We’re not the Oshkosh Farmers Market we were last year,” she said. “I’m grateful that we’re still open, but it does sadden me that we aren’t what we were last year.”

For vendors like Terry Schmoldt of Fremont, who has been selling produce and baked goods at the market for the last decade, just having the market open at all has been a blessing.

The market provides “a good place for people to get fresh, local produce,” Schmoldt said.

He grows all of his own tomatoes, pumpkins, peppers, pickles and cucumbers. While Schmoldt hesitates to call his produce “true organic,” he describes it as “sustainably grown.”

“We treat the soil like a living organism,” Schmoldt said.

When many area farmers markets were temporarily closed due to COVID-19 in March, Schmoldt was able to donate much of his produce, avoiding waste. This generous act unfortunately caused a financial hit.

“It impacts the bottom line,” he said. “The summer market was a help, but I was really surprised by the amount of people not taking [the pandemic] seriously.”

Attendees largely have been forced to take the pandemic seriously when strolling the convention center, because of the winter market’s mask mandate and other social distancing guidelines.

With the guidelines in place, Schmoldt feels safe interacting with customers and educating them about sustainability, which is his favorite part.

“People have distracted themselves so much from the farm and where their food comes from, so it’s fun talking to them about how it’s grown,” he said.

At the end of the day, keeping the market open and giving the vendors a place to sell their products — amid a time of great uncertainty — is enough incentive to continue persevering throughout the pandemic, Schmid-Schultz said.

“I love the market, so I’m just elated that we can be here and that we aren’t shut down,” she said. “The people that come here do welcome us because they see what we offer the community.”