Marengo vendor banned from Chicago farmers market for allegations of COVID-19 safety violations

Market manager had a personal problem with their farm, Nichols Farm says

Nick Nichols, one of the manager of Nichols Farm and Orchard and son of the company's founders, stands ready to give away the farm's unsold produce to families in need on Sunday, Aug. 2, outside of Big Star, a Mexican restaurant in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood.
Nick Nichols, one of the manager of Nichols Farm and Orchard and son of the company's founders, stands ready to give away the farm's unsold produce to families in need on Sunday, Aug. 2, outside of Big Star, a Mexican restaurant in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood.

Nichols Farm and Orchard of Marengo claims it is being singled out unfairly after being banned from the Wicker Park Farmers Market on allegations of violating COVID-19 safety regulations.

The farm, which has been a vendor at the farmers market in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood for 22 years, was informed last Tuesday that it would not be allowed to participate in Sunday's market, Todd Nichols, one of the farm's managers, said in an interview Monday.

"Every week that we're not at that market, we lose $5,000 out of our bottom line for the year and we've worked hard to build a reputation for 40 years that we feel is being attacked," Nichols said.

The decision to remove Nichols Farm as a vendor was because of continued "noncompliance with some of the COVID-19 health regulations for our market," according to a statement released by the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber of Commerce said there were several noncompliance issues with the farm beginning in the first week of the market's 2020 season. On July 12, an inspector from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events came to the market and informed its management of additional COVID-19 safety issues with some of its vendors.

Nichols Farm was "the sole vendor to decline to rectify the issues on-site that day," according to the Chamber of Commerce's statement.

Nichols said their team was given a verbal warning on that day that they failed to put a rope around their booth to encourage social distancing. His staff could not remedy the issue the same day as they did not have a suitable rope with them, but made sure to bring one to the next market, he said.

The Chamber of Commerce's statement alleged that market staff tried to work with the farm on multiple occasions to get them to comply with COVID-19 safety procedures.

In response, Nichols said the farm was only given two verbal warnings about COVID-19 regulations this season. The first came at the beginning of the season when a new staff member was wearing her mask improperly while setting up the booth and the second was the incident with the rope, he said.

When the farm was first contacted last week, it was given an entirely different reason for being kicked out of the market, Nichols said. He initially was told that the market had found his staff to be disrespectful and difficult to work with, he said. The COVID-19 safety violations were cited after the company took to Facebook to complain about the market's treatment of them.

He alleged that his farm was being singled out and treated unfairly due to a "minor altercation" between the market's manager and a former farm employee, which occurred back in 2018 when the employee got angry with the manager for moving the farm into a considerably smaller space.

"Never have we had an issue until the current market manager who works for the wicker park chamber," according to the farm's July 28 Facebook post. "The Wicker Park market is an important source of revenue for our family farm and this would cost us tens of thousands in lost revenue."

Nichols said he was concerned about the impact that the market's accusations would have on the farm's reputation in the area so he wrote a letter addressed to the Wicker Park and Bucktown community and posted it to Facebook last Thursday.

Nichols also plans on reaching out to the Chamber of Commerce soon to try to appeal their decision, he said.

“I don't want this to evolve into something more than it needs to be,” he said. “I just want it to be known that we feel wronged.”

In its online statement, the chamber said it would welcome the leaders of Nichols Farm to contact them so that their re-admittance into the Wicker Park market can be considered. The chamber's Board of Directors currently is reviewing the decision to ban the farm.

Nichols said he had been under the impression that their decision was final, but after reading the statement, decided that he would reach out to try to make amends for "the benefit of both sides."

On Sunday, when Nichols Farm would normally be at the farmers market, staff set up tables at Big Star, a Mexican restaurant in Wicker Park, to give away unsold produce for free, according to a post on their Facebook page. The produce giveaway was designed to help "anyone in need."

Nichols Farm and Orchard was founded by Lloyd and Doreen Nichols, Todd Nichols' parents, in 1978 and currently sells its produce at seven different farmers markets across Chicago beyond the Wicker Park Farmers Market as well as five markets in the suburbs.

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