WICKER PARK — The Wicker Park Farmer’s Market was missing one of its longest standing vendors this weekend.
For the first time in history, Nichols Farm & Orchard did not operate a booth alongside fellow farmers at the market in Wicker Park, 1945 N. Damen Ave.
Instead, farmer Todd Nichols parked his truck nearby outside Big Star, delivering pre-purchased produce bundles. He also passed out more than 400 bags of free food — crops he would have sold for profit, he said, had he been allowed inside the market.
Nichols was kicked out of the market last week after 20 years following a series of coronavirus safety violations. Nichols acknowledged the violations, but he said he believes his farm was unfairly targeted by market manager Alice Howe.
“We are aware and conscious of safety,” he said. “She’s trying to squeeze us out. … Kicking us out without warning, without just cause. … It’s hypocrisy.”
Howe, a six-year customer of Nichols Farm, said she tried to work with Nichols to bring his booth into compliance. But after weeks of violations and “hostile” attitudes about mask-wearing among farm staff, the vendor left her no choice.
“This is not something we wanted to do,” she said. “We need to have vendors who are following the guidelines.”
‘It breaks my heart to do this to a family farm right now’
Nichols Farm was established in 1978 by Lloyd and Doreen Nichols and is now run by the couple’s three sons, including Todd Nichols.
Located in Marengo, the farm serves a handful of markets throughout the Chicagoland area and its produce is used in restaurants across the city. The company supports the seven grandchildren in the Nichols family and staffs between 45-50 people, Todd Nichols said.
The coronavirus pandemic significantly affected the farm, Nichols said. The loss of restaurant business and the temporary cancellation of summer farmer’s markets collectively led to overall revenues falling at least 75 percent.
The Wicker Park market isn’t the company’s largest market, but it is a routinely lucrative one with loyal customers, Nichols said. It makes up roughly 10 percent of all farmer’s market sales.
“You plant knowing you’re going to these markets,” he said. “Those are crops unsold. It’s easily $50-$70,000 in lost revenue for the year.”
City officials took great care when deciding to reopen farmer’s markets during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All vendors were required to submit a safety plan addressing safety measure regulations, Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events spokeswoman Christine Carrino said.
The Wicker Park market reopened July 5 with 18 vendors.
In the first few weeks of the market, Howe said she had to ask Nichols Farms staff to either put on face masks or wear them properly. There were also ongoing issues related to required hand washing stations and rope barriers, she said.
Other vendors tripped up along the way, too, Howe said. But staff with Nichols Farm met her with hostility each time she asked them to fix something, she said.
On July 12, a city inspector toured the market. The inspector noted violations from multiple vendors, including Nichols Farms.
On that day, Howe said she recalled the inspector giving her a verbal citation, stipulating that if vendors — namely Nichols — did not come into compliance, the market could be shut down.
The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events does not have a record of an official citation, written or verbal, and the inspector reported all vendors made “adjustments” on-site, Carrino said.
The following week, Nichols Farm was again in non-compliance with the rules, Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce director Pamela Maass said.
On July 26, Howe witnessed Nichols Farm staffers not wearing masks while setting up their booth, she said. When Howe asked them to wear their masks, she was met with hostility, she said.
Fearing the shutdown of the market, leaders decided to boot Nichols from the market that day.
If the market were to be shut down, not only would neighbors lose their weekly market — 17 other vendors would lose out in income, Maass said.
“Our staff attempted to work with Nichols Farm to comply with the guidelines,” Maass said. “They have jeopardized this market.”
On Monday, July 27, Maass emailed Nichols Farms to tell them they would be removed from the market. She followed up Tuesday with a bulleted list of coronavirus safety measure violations over the course of the summer.
“I grew up on an organic soybean farm … It breaks my heart to do this to a family farm right now,” Maass said. “We have to be able to stay in compliance because we have to be able to stay safe.”
‘I hope public support sides with the farm’
After sharing his story on Instagram and speaking with customers Sunday morning, Nichols said he’s received a ton of support — and new customers.
“I hope public support sides with the farm,” he said.
Since Nichols’ Instagram post published, Howe and the chamber have received nasty messages on social media. During Sunday’s market, a few shoppers saw Howe and made snarky comments, she said.
Howe said she found it “insulting” that Nichols felt she had a “personal vendetta” against him.
Before the market officially reopened in July, she said she volunteered 15 hours each week to set up virtual markets for Nichols and other long-time vendors.
Maass said the market will consider Nichols’ re-admittance to the market if the farm reaches out to “professionally” address their COVID-19 health and safety noncompliance issues.
Nichols said he’s not sure how he would feel about reentering the market.
While he acknowledged each of the safety violations, he said he felt his farm was unfairly targeted. Other vendors were frequently in noncompliance, too, he said.
On Sunday morning, for example, he said he witnessed a handful of vendors not wearing masks during their booth set-up.
With Big Star’s permission, Nichols plans to continue setting up a delivery truck on Sundays.
Big Star, however, was closed Sunday after a staffer contracted coronavirus. It’s expected to reopen after a deep cleaning and more staff tests.
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