Learning the fate of our Farmers Market

■ BY SUE ERWIN     FARMERS MARKER logo web

Boca Grande Farmers Market Founder Shauna Lee Lange is hoping for a successful 2016-2017 season – even if it is only half a season.

This month, representatives of Lee County informed her that Wheeler Field, where the market was held for the first two years, would not be available for use from October through December of 2016.

Construction projects planned to take place on the island will require the use of that land to house the construction operating equipment and supplies during that time period. “

How does one explain that to the vendors? Local small businesses rely on those six months and their established island relationships to make their living for the entire year. Vendors are not apt to switch markets mid-season,” Lange said.

And then another challenge arose.

Lange received a notice explaining that County officials have decided to accept requests for proposals (RFP) from any party interested in organizing and taking responsibility for the island farmers markets held on the County field.

“The concept of bringing the markets to Boca Grande was originally my idea, my brainchild, my intellectual property – for the residents and tourists. I expended nearly all of my time and energy in making this happen over the last two years, and in growing and marketing the concept in an environment with lots of restrictions, and now government is asking me to bid in a competitive process?” Lange asked incredulously.

As of press time, the paperwork that would mandate the RFP process was in the legal department of Lee County.

Lange has looked into other options, such as using parcels owned by The Gasparilla Inn & Club, island churches and the state park, but many of them have issues with the required available parking and restrooms, or the size of the premises, even though the market is only at maximum a 6-hour enterprise one day a week.

Ideally, she is hoping that a private property owner on the island will step forward and lend her the land needed for the markets to be held. She added that she especially likes the field across the street from the Pink Elephant, overlooking the harbor and boat docks.

By removing the physical market from the County’s oversight and placing it on private property, she could move forward with a quality market without the bureaucracy of the current situation.

“The vendors require a 10 x 10 foot selling space, and all of them are very respectful of the property they are on. They clean up everything and take all their trash with them every week, leaving the area just as nice as it was when they arrived,” Lange said. S

he also feels that the farmers market is an asset to the tourism and realty trades, and she sees a partner- ship with a private landowner as a natural transition to bolster both entities.

Lange’s farmers market didn’t have to compete in the RFP process for the first two seasons. An application process, along with required documentation, and much stakeholder coordination were sufficient in meeting the required paperwork.

“I would hate to see the Boca Grande Farmers Market cease. It has been a labor of love and part of a much larger vision for food interests on the island, but I am just out to sea with the ongoing uncertainty of our foothold. And to be frank, in the back- and-forth of this uncertainty, poor timing and vagueness, some vendors have lost confidence for reasons completely out of my control. In my mind, I saw an island institution with signs celebrating 10 or even 25 years of bringing the community together in Boca Grande,” Lange said.

The market has attracted around 1,000 guests each Friday during peak weeks, according to Lange. During season one in 2014, Boca Grande Farmers Market had 30 vendors. At the beginning of season two in 2015, Lange had secured 52 vendors for spots at the market. When a County ordinance ruled out specific types of nonfood vendors, that number was cut to 24. Then after a few more dropped out, it was down to 18. At the end of season two, there were just 11 vendors setting up booths every Friday morning.

Nearly all of the 11 have expressed an interest in returning again this year, even though 2015 also brought a few last-minute cancellations due to inclement weather.

Rain or sun, Lange is presently unable to make any commitments to vendor applicants, because she doesn’t know for certain the physical market’s operating future.

“It’s very frustrating. My hands are tied. The vendors need to make solid plans for the upcoming season, and they can’t do that right now,” Lange said. But she isn’t ready to give up.

She has launched a “Gopher” delivery service to personally purchase and deliver local fresh items to customers in Boca Grande and in Englewood.

“If we are unable to have a physical market here, at least we can bring market-quality products for people on the island to enjoy,” she said.

The bottom line is, Lange is in the position of once again, now just 90 days shy of season three, having to wait and see where the cards may fall.

“If this community, which we love and are committed to, wants a local and fresh foods farmers market to remain under my leadership and vision, I’m asking you to please step forward now. Especially if you have available land to share,” she said.

For more information, you can contact Lange via email at bocagrandefarmersmarket@gmail.com or call 941-875-5190.