Most visitors to farmers markets expect to find fresh, locally produced offerings. But for some markets in the near-northwest suburbs, long-standing vendor relationships mean that those "locally" grown tomatoes aren't always produced in state.
As the popularity of markets grows across Illinois and beyond, organizers have been tasked with determining just what exactly makes something "local."
"It's really up to that market to have defined rules and go by them," said Pat Stieren, executive director of the Illinois Farmers Market Association.
Since 1994, the number of farmers markets in Illinois has more than tripled, from 97 to more than 350, Stieren said. At least 80 new markets have sprouted in the past five years, he said.
In the relatively new Morton Grove farmers market, which kicked off its first season in 2010, items like fruits, vegetables and flowers must be grown within about 150 miles of the village, according to the market's website. Regular site visits are conducted to ensure that requirement is met, the site states.
Other, more established markets have no set regulations for vendor locations.
"Midwest is the broad answer to our definition of 'local,' " said Terry Oline, manager of the farmers market in Skokie.
All but five of the Skokie market's 18 vendors are from Illinois, Oline said. The rest are from Michigan or Wisconsin.
Skokie's market has operated for almost 40 years, Oline said, and some of its vendors are third-generation sellers at the market. As such, vendor turnover at the market is infrequent.
"As things open up, we informally look that way to try to have an Illinois replacement," Oline said.
To ensure those "Michigan peaches" are really from Michigan, a signed affidavit is required as part of Skokie's vendor application process, Oline said. Site visits are typically only done if a complaint is filed, but Oline added such instances are "infrequent to say the least."
Nearby in Park Ridge, market manager Barb Beil said the goal is to ensure that farmers are growing their own fruits and vegetables and not purchasing them wholesale. The Park Ridge farmers market opened in 1991, and its 23 vendors come from Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, Beil said.
"We try to keep it to family farms," Beil said. "Generally speaking, they have to be close enough to travel to us."
As with Skokie, most of the Park Ridge market vendors have been with the market for many years.
"All the farmers have been visited at one time," she said. "But it's been awhile. It's probably been 10 years since we've had a new farmer, if not longer."
For Beil and the committee of 13 volunteers who organize the farmers market, the challenge is ensuring the right mix of vendors.
"We have a local honey vendor from Schaumburg," she said. "We're not going to bring another honey vendor in. We don't have a big enough market to sustain two people selling that product."
At last Sunday's Skokie market, vendor Heather Horcher of T&H Farm LTD in Marengo, Ill., said her husband Tim -- the "T" in T&H -- started selling produce and flowers at the market with his parents back when it first opened.
Horcher, 47, said she is aware of vendors who purchase produce from Chicago wholesale markets and sell those items for less than the vendors who actually grow everything they sell.
"It makes it rough when you follow the rules," she said, adding that she has seen farmers market vendors selling tomatoes from Georgia, Florida or Mexico.
The average consumer might not be able to distinguish between produce grown on the vendor's farm and produce purchased at a wholesale market, but Horcher said there are signs.
"When you see big watermelon in July, there's no way that came from Northern Illinois," she said. "Watch if they have a full spread of items even if not in season."
Skokie resident Harriet Levy, 60, said she hoped that farmers market organizers would do more to ensure the quality and origins of items sold at the market.
"I expect local farmers are bringing their own produce to the market," she said. "I would be disappointed if I was getting produce wholesale."
Tribune reporters Alexandra Chachkevitch, John P. Huston and Greg Trotter contributed to this report.