Could our farmers market be facing its final season?

B&A's-BY MARCY SHORTUSE – It doesn’t take long to get used to having something so good as the Boca Grande Farmers Market around. Residents of the island have become familiar with the Friday routine of stopping by for lunch, a cup of coffee, live music and, of course, lots of fruits, vegetables and plants. But, according to a letter written to the Boca Beacon recently by the farmers market founder Shauna Lee Lange, the future of our farmers market might be called into question. In fact, she has put out a call to anyone who might know of a suitable alternative for a new location.

Lange said when they began plans in the summer of 2014 to establish the market, the most tedious part of set up was to find a suitable and stable location. Land availability, visibility, restrooms, and parking were and are primary considerations.

“We worked with several early supporters to secure potential and logical matches,” Lange said. “Because the bulk of planning occurred during off-season, making necessary and timely connections was a challenge.”

Lange said when Lee County gave their blessing to use the Wheeler Road Ballfield, it was like the clouds parted and the sun came out. The staff members she worked with were very cooperative, and considering the field is not often used, it seemed like more of a revitalization than anything else.

According to Lange, though, the 2015/2016 market faces two developing pressures necessitating this appeal for alternative locations.

“The first is that a newly formed off-island market plans to open in a location that is a direct access route to Boca Grande,” she explained. “This poses the potential adverse effect for our planned expansion and advertising off-island as well as creates an impact to the economic growth island businesses glean from increased market attendance.”

While it may seem like that isn’t a serious problem, the second part of challenges facing our farmers market is. Lange said pending changes, resulting from current flea market and farmers market food vs. craft controversies, have left Lee County looking at changing their plans to allocate and award future community development permitting. That means that the market’s location stability may be at risk.

An ideal match, she said, would be a privately owned lot or other land area, relatively close to town center.

We sat down with Lange, a self-taught, late-emergent, mid-life artist explorer of interdependencies, sustainability, and organic systems, and asked her to explain the possible plight of the farmers market further. The Rhode Island native relocated to Florida in 2011 and just a few years later started the Boca Grande Farmers Market, which runs from October through April, every Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

  1. Q) How did you initially come to believe that a Boca Grande Farmers Market was a good idea?
  2. A) Sometimes in life you get an idea you believe could work in a certain location. You can visualize it clearly, but for whatever reason, you don’t immediately act – maybe it’s timing, or something else.

For example, I presently have an idea to market a new colorful pool noodle I call the Rigatoni, it is a large styrofoam swim/floatation device you lounge IN instead of on and is designed to ward off harmful Sun rays while enabling cool float enjoyment of the water. Yeah, look for that in stores near you soon! Ha.

Seriously, I had been working with a local island non-profit organization and I was quickly tiring of the same old options for lunch as well as how far I had to travel to get to the great ones. In my time in this area since 2011, I also saw that the community needed a central event to draw everyone out and together in pursuit of health. As we began our research and learned about Boca’s positioning as a food desert, it became clear that a Farmers Market was simply smart.

The farmers market is only step one of a much larger vision I hold out of true concern for our food availability future, our children’s ability to know where food is derived from, our aging population’s health, and what I view as a community’s ripeness for cultivation of agri-tourism destination growth. An idyllic island, talented writers and artists, forward thinkers, well-traveled cooks, gourmet chefs and we’re not actively growing that?

Boca Grande sits in the very unique position of being perfectly able to operate as a test-bed, a proving ground, a national highlight of forward food thought, experience, and events. I had the crazy thought that maybe all that was needed was a willing champion.

  1. Q) Why is a farmers market so much more beneficial than a grocery store?
  2. A) A farmers market is important to the community because everyone should have direct access to nutritious, whole, local, and optimally, unadulterated food. Like those food products, the farmers market event sustains a region’s well-being and makes it possible for us to pursue happier and healthier lives.

Sadly today, that type of food and community experience are not always available, especially in the case of food deserts. Due to cost and access, fresh fruits and vegetables are a luxury many Americans can’t afford. I am consistently shocked at big box grocery prices. Whole food is quickly becoming reachable only through economic means, or by virtue of ones own attempts to plug into gardening, co-ops, food hubs, or other sustaining endeavors.

The great news is farmers markets have expanded access to fresh healthy food by offering competitive prices, wider selection, and education. In many areas, such as our own, Farmers markets putting fruits and vegetables front and center, and creating a shopping environment where nutritious foods are not only affordable but celebrated, has reached a tipping point. Too many markets, and you’re now compromising the vendors’ ability to sustain them all, as well as possibly ending up with less than optimal harvest yields.

The Farmers Market Coalition (a national clearinghouse for farmers market advocacy) answers the “why is it important” question with five facts:

  • Preserving America’s rural livelihoods and farmland. Farmers markets provide one of the only low-barrier entry points for beginning farmers, allowing them to start small, test the market, and grow their businesses. They often serve as business incubators, especially in the cottage foods and handmade crafts sectors.
  • Stimulating local economies. Growers selling locally create 13 full time farm operator jobs per $1 million in revenue earned.
  • Increasing access to fresh, nutritious food. Several studies have found lower prices for conventional and organic produce at farmers markets than at supermarkets. Due to this and other factors, 52 percent more SNAP households shop at farmers markets and from direct marketing farmers today than in 2011.
  • Supporting healthy communities. Farmers market vendors educate their shoppers. Four out of five farmers selling at markets discuss farming practices with their customers, and three in five discuss nutrition and how to prepare food.
  • Promoting sustainability. Three out of every four farmers selling at farmers markets say they use practices consistent with organic standards.
  1. Q) Do you have any new vendors coming up for the new season that you would like to feature?
  2. A) Most new farmers markets fold after the first year of operation. Attracting vendors and public can prove a daunting task. One needs both in simultaneous spark to create enough groundswell to carry over to the next year. Because we believe in trusted, longer-term relationship, cultivating our initial vendors was high on the priority list. As a result, over 75 percent of our initial, season-long vendors have opted to return for season two, something we point to as a testament to our joint efforts.

At the same time, offering diversity, new products, and expanded organic options are three keys to keeping the market interesting, fun, and engaging. I am continuing the search for high-end exotics such as specialty mushrooms, wild grasses, teas, and spices. We know there is an epicurean interest in unique products like edible flowers for example. Our challenge is to find the mom and pop operators who are looking to elevate their success and who have quality products to excite our palettes.

  1. Q) How many vendors do you expect to see this year, in comparison to last season?
  2. A) Vendor numbers are a tricky data set. First, you have seasoned vendors who know the seasonal margin months of October and April can be slow. Second, you have a community that hosts many snowbirds who do not arrive until November. Third, you have an island community that often returns to family over the November and December time frames.

January really feels like the big month, and it was for us during season one, but in the management of the market one also has a revolving door of vendors who are leaving one market for another, stabling out what’s a good fit where. This occurs from failed expectations, longer commutes, or poor communication.

Add that in to a first year launch, and what you end up with is an out of the gate count of about 40 vendors, a highest date count of about 55, a foul weather count of about 15, and an average that hovers somewhere in the middle. As of July 2015, we currently have 30 or so confirmed vendors for Season 2 and we are only in the early stages of our prospecting and courting efforts. We also have specialty vendors who have expressed interest in a once a month or a bi-weekly appearance.

  1. Q) Can you elaborate more about the two threats to our farmers market?
  2. A) Pending changes, resulting from current flea market/farmers market food vs. craft controversies, to how Lee County plans to allocate and award future community development permitting means that the market’s location stability may be at risk. Presently in Lee County, one somewhat vague and outdated ordinance lumps flea markets and farmers markets under the same oversight, even though the two are very different operations. Recently, there has been some upheaval amongst operators of both businesses centering around restrictions or proposed restrictions on what offerings, and the percentage breakdown, of what can or should be enacted and enforced.

We believe that there are enough farmers and cottage foodies in our local area to support a green-only market. We also believe that a carefully-curated offering of crafts and art only enhances the experience for all.

However, I come from an extremely regimented background, including military service, federal government, and state-level work. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you have to be able to work with others, sometimes on their terms. Lee County has a huge regulatory obligation for the safety, health, and well-being of the public and we stand at the ready to comply with whatever model of farmers market they propose. BGFM has taken the position that we will not engage in the fighting.

The Lee County controversy has opened up avenues for competing interests to leverage and muscle, if you will, the county into having to re-examine how permitting for farmers market and flea markets are administered. What was brought by us to the people of Boca Grande, as formed out of privately held intellectual property and business trademarked establishment, now holds the real prospect of being publically competed for bid process, all because the market is held on county land. We have appealed to the people of Boca Grande to help the market find a permanent home.

As far as the new off-island market is concerned, while we hold that competition is beneficial for all, when a newly-formed market opens on the same day as yours in an area that’s a direct access route to yours, they have effectively posed a logistical transportation chokehold. Let’s face it, the farmer and the vendor wants and needs to be able to bring product quickly, using the most direct route. This is done for product freshness and for cost savings.

Much of our nation’s challenge with food distribution centers on this same logistics and transportation problem. And it’s why we also see the concurrent growth in Community Supported Agriculture farm share offerings, where the farmer delivers a crop once a week to multiple customers at a singular drop location.

In establishing the market last year, the bulk of expensive advertising costs went to developing awareness for islanders and island visitors. It would have been our plan this year to increase that exposure to the immediate surrounding 25-to-50 mile radius; statistically the distance the public is willing to travel. With the potential of new backyard competition, our ability to effectively do that is somewhat limited. It has the added adverse effect of reducing the economic potential the market could have brought to island visitors.

There is a silver lining. If BGFM is truly to become an agent of change in developing sustainable community on island, perhaps the competition is even a blessing in disguise. We are learning that we have permaculture, monoculture, aquaponics, hydroponics, xeriscape, and loads more people right in our own island-based neighborhood who are convicted and committed to nutrition, wellness, exercise, and largely chemical-free living. In the end, it takes a village of people to make meaningful change, and maybe, just maybe, knowing those people more clearly and thoroughly, and digging into what is important to each other is truly what sustainable community is really about. If not, you can find me sailing offshore in my Rigatoni.