Farmers Market Filled To Capacity
August 18th, 2009
How the downtown Salt Lake City farmers market has become a huge success
by Richard Markosian
The downtown Salt Lake City farmers market has become a huge success and now according to Downtown Alliance Marketing Director Danica Farley they are, "filled to capacity."
Attending the market on Saturday its clear why is has become such a draw -- Musicians are jamming on guitars and banjos; fragrant thyme, basil and mushrooms are for sale to satisfy the most discerning chefs; vegetables of every size shape and color are being traded with cash as well as with wooden food stamps -- which I will go into more later. There are also delicious ethnic food offerings that would cost twice as much in restaurants.
The Salt Lake City Farmers market is a part of an overall national trend. In the past 10 years the number of farmers markets nationwide has increased five fold. The Salt Lake City's market is the biggest and best in Utah because unlike other markets it is a true farmers market: its not so much a craft market, flower market or art market -- although it is these things to an extent -- as it is a means for farmers to sell their produce directly to the public -- cutting out the middle man and offering the freshest locally grown produce found anywhere.
This is now the most lucrative marketplace in Utah for growers and craftspeople. If the downtown farmers market were a mall it would be Gateway. But unlike Gateway, there isn't a $10,000 per month retail lease agreement; only a $300 per year space, which has made the downtown market very difficult to get into.
Farmers Market Organizer Kim Angeli said the first mandatory criteria is applicants must: "bake it, make it or grow it." to even be considered. The market allows for relatives or employees to sell produce and products, but growers or craftspeople aren't allowed to purchase any of the items they sell from a third party.
Andy Thompson drove 5 hours from Hurricane in the wee hours of the morning to attend the Salt Lake City market, "We have been coming here for the past 7 years because we can sell our produce for about double [compared to wholesale to supermarkets]." Thompson Family produce began growing pecans and have expanded their farm in recent years to also grow fresh cantaloupes and watermelons. At 11:00 PM they are down to about 40 melons, and the remaining inventory is moving fast.
The Downtown Salt Lake City Market is the brain child of Bob Farrington former Director of the Downtown Alliance, who 12 years ago saw the Pioneer Park as a great space to host a downtown market. At that time it would have required a lot of vision.
In the early 1990s the drug trade at Pioneer Park was considered unstoppable. Since then the park has had two major makeovers and today it has improved dramatically. While there are still vagrants in the park, along with the occasional police raids on weekdays, the park is certainly a safe environment while the farmers market is in full swing.
The Downtown Alliance is now offering a Tuesday night market which offers exclusively fresh local produce. Angeli said offering the Tuesday market was the only way they could expand. They hope that this additional night offers the opportunity for more urbanites to buy fresh produce.
While the market is certainly great for attendees, a better understanding of the economic and social impacts is gained by speaking to the farmers. Consuming more locally grown produce is not just healthier but it has a significant impact on Utah's small farms that struggle to turn a profit when they sell to super markets and big box stores. "We found that we couldn't make any money selling to the big box stores," said Verl Cook. Cook said that the farmers markets have enabled them to continue to make a viable business out of their small farm. The Cooks farm is a family 5th generation family farm in Orem.
Market organizer Kim Angeli calls the nationwide movement as "a food renaissance...The veil between food and where it comes from is gone. People are attracted to the spirit of community...The human connection is a big thing, to see your friends and talk to strangers.
It was clear in hanging out that people attend not only to stock up for the week for fresh produce but to experience a flourishing marketplace, full of the products and the people who make Utah special. Watching farmers and urbanites make a rare connection is a great people watching experience. Mike and Lindsay were attending the market with their daughter Illa, they were stocking up on sweet corn, and Illa was eating an ear while they were walking, until my dog Keeks stole Illa's corn. Luckily they thought it was cute.
An Indoor Year-Round Farmers Market
Angeli would like to eventually offer an indoor farmers market year-round, seven days a week. New York already has such a place in the Chelsea Market. Here they have dairy farmers from New England and ranchers from area farms as well as wine stores, cheese makers and every variety of local produce. Each vendor offers not only their food, but the chance for shoppers to be educated in what manner each food item is produced.
Angeli says that they have been planning for a location for a year-round market. And they have narrowed it down from 30 to 3 locations. But she said that the details are not worth getting into yet because there is no funding vehicle yet in place.
But there are some who are trying to promote this idea in a free-market manner. Rico Locals is offering a year-round market, which is operated like a food coop. All who are in the market lease the space together and all food is sold on consignment, but currently Rico Locals doesn't offer produce, but Rico products as well as honey and cheese.
The Farmers Market Food Stamp Program
The market is now equipped with machines that can exchange food stamp credits (from specially issued debit cards) for farmers market wooden tokens. At the end of the day, sellers can redeem these tokens for cash. Angeli said the number of dollars exchanged though this program has doubled in the past year.
The National Trend
Kim Angeli discussed a recent film she saw at the Broadway Theater entitled Food Inc. This film demonstrates how modern agricultural practices and industrial farms are removing the natural connection that people have with the food they eat.
We live in an age when chickens and cows can be genetically modified, pumped with steroids grown and harvested in less than six months; But is this a modern marvel, or a disgraceful indignity to living creatures? If all farms were to become mega-automated industrial factories are we losing the innate connection we have with the ground?
Just like most Americans, I like good cheap food - I really like Costco, I try to avoid Wal-Mart but I can see the appeal. But the success of the farmers market demonstrates that more people are realizing that there is a lot to gain from becoming a "localvore" and there is more to life than cheap food.