Going from music education to farmer support may seem like a drastic career change but in talking with Jacquelyn Evers, Executive Director of The Land Connection you will learn that her love of working with her community was able to carry through to both jobs. While everyone may know The Land Connection for their summer and winter farmers markets in Downtown Champaign and Urbana, respectively, The Land Connection is responsible for many different projects that greatly benefit both our farmers and the communities they serve. We were able to sit down with Jacquelyn and discuss all the great things The Land Connection does locally and across the state, plus asked about her top picks at the markets.
Tell me about yourself.
My name is Jacquelyn Evers and I have been the Executive Director of The Land Connection (TLC) for almost five years.
I came into this position with no real background in food and farm system work. I had been serving as the director of a youth symphony outside of Springfield and, prior to that, I’d been a music educator in Central Illinois teaching high school music classes, chorus, and band. I always thought that my life would be in the arts somehow and helping children become patrons of the arts as adults. Then, I came across the director position at TLC and thought, this will be interesting. So far, it’s been a really lovely experience, which is why I’m still here after five years.
My role here as the director puts me largely responsible for finding all the resources for our team to do their job, the type of work that happens through our farmers markets, farmer training programs, farmland access, consumer education and others.
Readers may know TLC because of the Champaign-Urbana Farmers Markets, which we will talk about later on. Can you share about the other programs that TLC leads and their impact on the community?
We like to say that our work is about offering resources and education to farmers, food businesses and eaters, and the markets kind of fulfills a lot of the food business and eater work that we do.
We also have a farmer training program here, which is designed to provide farmers with the resources and assistance they need to run successful businesses. Our focus is on farm businesses that are working towards more positive environmental and ecological outcomes in their operations. Many of them would mark themselves as organic, sustainable, or regenerative agriculture. We work with vegetable operations, livestock, grain, and cut flowers, too. Really, we just try to cover a myriad of small and medium sized producers that are looking to become better stewards of the land. Oftentimes we do a lot of business assistance. Farmers are very good at the production side of their business, but sometimes neglect the business side of the business and so we do a lot of trainings on tax preparation, finances and accounting software, how to market your business, and different things like that.
In February, we launched Illinois FarmLink, a new program to TLC. We’ve always been invested in farmland access and helping ensure the legacy of Illinois’s agriculture by matching farmers and landowners. We’ve taken a hands-off approach to that relationship-building over the years, but we recently had an opportunity to grow this programming and the Illinois FarmLink program is about preserving Illinois’s agricultural legacy. Today, we have a team of five individuals that are based all around Illinois to do this work. A landowner or a farmer can visit our website, create a profile, and receive some one-on-one consulting with one of our navigators. The hope would be that we can serve as a resource to help landowners connect with farmers and that we can really work to increase and support the next generation of farmers in Illinois.
TLC is responsible for the weekly Champaign-Urbana Farmers Markets that run in Downtown Champaign from May to October and at Lincoln Square Mall from November to April. Can you tell us more about the market?
The Land Connection has been running the Champaign Farmers Market in downtown Champaign for a number of years. Our focus with getting this market going was the recognition that there wasn’t really a great place for a lot of neighborhoods around downtown to have access to fresh foods. Today, the market is on Tuesdays from 3 to 6 pm in the Neil-Washington parking lot market. It’s grown in the number of customers that visit, the number of annual vendors, and the variety of products, and I think we have really become a cornerstone in this community for food access by way of farmers.
A few years back when Covid had just began there were a lot of restrictions for the indoor winter farmers market due to some of the health department requirements that were coming down from the State [of Illinois]. The pandemic restrictions disrupted the previous market operations that occurred in Urbana in the winter and TLC was able to step in and run the indoor winter farmers market and has since organized that market. It grew this year and we had significantly more vendors through the holiday season than we’d seen in the previous two years running that market.
Now, communities outside of Champaign-Urbana ask us for assistance with running their farmers markets and starting new markets in their communities. I think that the Champaign Farmers Market has really been a catalyst for our community-centric work that we’re doing around food access through nutritious, locally grown and produced foods.
There is so much that someone can get at the Champaign Farmers Market. What are your personal must-haves when you shop there?
I shop in almost every vendor stand and get a small amount from everyone. We eat a lot of vegetables at home, so I’m always shopping at our vegetable vendors. I also think it’s fun to be able to buy soap, food, flowers and, you know, anything that you need. Most of the food that I can buy at the market comes from the market.
Last year, a vendor started selling at our summer farmers market as a weekly vendor and they offer beef, pork and poultry as well as fresh eggs. We also have two bread bakers that attend, the Central Illinois Bakehouse and then Tai’s Bakery, who is a new baker and his breads are outstanding. We also have vendors who sell soap, dog treats, and flowers. Then we’ve also got microgreens and, as I said, we’ve got a few vegetable vendors. Seasonally, we get a blueberry vendor there, which is always amazing. Same with apples, pears and peaches.
We try to do other activities at the market to help draw in people from all around the community. So, during the last Tuesday of every month, and the last Saturday of every month at the winter market, we bring in what we call “Kids Kits”, which is a small meal kit for families to take for free. The kit includes a video for the families to watch and all the ingredients that you need to make a small meal. Those were a great draw for families.
The Farmers Market has a Link/SNAP/EBT match program. Can you explain how that works?
One of the biggest programs we do is Link/EBT match. Anyone who is able to visit our farmers markets can swipe their LINK card and we match up to $20 on the card. We provide an additional $40 in vouchers that can be used for fruits and vegetables, and then we give you an extra $20 to be used on any SNAP-eligible food. So, when you swipe and spend $20, you walk away with $80 to use in the indoor winter market or you walk away with $60 to shop with at the summer farmers market – it’s an amazing program! To give you an idea of this impact, we distributed over a hundred thousand dollars last year in matching benefits.
The Land Connection is located at 206 N Randolph Street, Ste. 400, in Downtown Champaign.
Header photo credit: Darrell Hoemann Photography
The Land Connection is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Make a donation today by visiting www.thelandconnection.org/donate/.