It’s 8:30 a.m. and shoppers are standing by the Ed Welchert Produce stall in Aksarben Village on any given Sunday in the summer. The Omaha Farmers Market won’t open for another 30 minutes, giving Donna and Ed Welchert (and their team of employees) precious minutes to finish setting up the stand. At 9 a.m., it’s time to sell.
The Welcherts have been a staple of the Omaha Farmers Market since it began downtown 25 years ago. The locations and days of the week have changed—and the crowds have grown—as the market gradually evolved into a refined citywide network of markets with corporate sponsors.
Omaha Farmers Market began in 1994 with a small group of vendors in the Old Market. At the time, Ed Welchert had been farming land north of Omaha with his family for decades, selling his produce wholesale direct to stores like Foodway and Baker’s. When the Welcherts heard about the concept of an outdoor bazaar starting in the Old Market, they figured they ought to check it out.
Not knowing what to expect, they sent one employee with a card table and a couple of wicker baskets full of produce. It fit in one pickup truck.
“It was a slow start,” remembers Donna, recalling how their employee brought almost all of the produce back to the farm that day.
“The people started coming, and kept coming, and kept coming,” Donna says. Her husband estimates it was a good 10 years before things really picked up, and when they did, it just jumped in attendance, he says.
Kent Cisar, an Omaha native, started shopping at the Omaha Farmers Market around that time.
“I loved the vibe of the market back then,” he recalls. “I think the early days of the market for me was shopping with friends who were committed to buying local, high-quality items.”
It wasn’t the first time farmers sold their goods in the Old Market. Agrarians originally sold fruits and vegetables wholesale to restaurants and grocery stores at the City Market. It was a bustling trade in the 1880s, but the growth of grocery store warehouses ended the market in 1964. Ed vaguely recalls traveling with his father, Ray Welchert, to the City Market. Ray was a vendor there, as was Ed’s grandfather.
In time, the third generation of Welcherts saw their stand grow along with the Omaha Farmers Market. The Welcherts eventually needed to bring three trucks for equipment and produce.
As Ed Welchert Produce brought more crops, the Omaha Farmers Market added more vendors and locations. The downtown farmers market has expanded to more than 90 booths. In 2010, the Omaha Farmers Market added a second location, Aksarben Village, on Sundays. The Sunday market now has more than 115 vendor booths. A third, smaller Omaha Farmers Market runs on Wednesdays in July and August at Charles Drew Health Center.
Cisar has his favorite vendors. He first bought bacon from North Star Neighbors. When they stopped vending, he discovered Crooked Creek Farms. When they switched to selling only at Aksarben Village, Cisar sought them out there.
“The Aksarben Market is now the better market. There’s more vendors, a bit more space, and since it’s centrally located, on nice days it’s jammed, which I like,” Cisar says. “But if you want to get [specific] items, you better get there before 10 a.m., otherwise [they] may be gone. The Downtown Market isn’t as busy with patrons or vendors these days, but it’s still home. I love the Aksarben area and what it’s done for our city, but nothing can replicate the vibe of brick, old buildings and fresh food of the downtown market.”
Other local farmers markets not affiliated with the officially branded “Omaha Farmers Market” include the Florence Mill Farmers Market (on Sundays at the Florence Mill), the Benson Farmers Market (normally held on Saturdays, but discontinued in 2018 after the loss of the Benson market location), and the Village Pointe Farmers Market (Saturdays).
The Welcherts tried to sell at both the Old Market and Aksarben Village locations, but “it about killed us,” Donna says. After 21 years in the Old Market, the Welcherts switched to just Sundays in Aksarben.
The Welcherts typically sell green beans and potatoes. In recent years, they began diversifying their offerings as they noticed younger customers’ changing preferences.
“The younger crowd is more health conscious,” Ed says.
Donna noticed the shift in customers, too. The first year they brought kohlrabi, she says just the older customers knew what to do with it. “Over the next two years, you saw this huge shift when younger people came and asked for it.”
Count Cisar among the crowd of novelty-seeking shoppers.
“I think my favorite days of shopping at the market are when I go down with an open mind and let the items I see do the talking,” Cisar says. “I’m always attracted to things I haven’t seen before, like a unique eggplant, squash, or [other] vegetable, and I like asking the vendor how to use it, how it tastes—and, if I was successful, I tell them about it
Vic Gutman & Associates manages Omaha Farmers Market, which hosts vendors selling fresh produce at the Old Market (Saturdays), Aksarben Village (Sundays), and Charles Drew Health Center (Wednesdays) in the summer, in addition to other specialty markets throughout the year. Visit omahafarmersmarket.com for more information.
This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha.