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Farmers' Market opens its 10th season at City Hall
Bainbridge Island Farmers' Market has a new philosophy and manager as it enters its 10th year at City Hall and 27th overall, but customers foraging for new provisions during Saturday’s opening day likely won’t notice any drastic changes from a year ago.
As usual, the grassy space between the city and Bainbridge Performing Arts buildings will be jam-packed with about 45 vendors selling farm and craft products from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
There will be the ceremonial “goat cheese toss,” which is akin to the toss of a bride’s wedding bouquet in that the person on the receiving takes it home – along with many other market goodies. And there will drawings throughout for products offered at the market.
And in keeping with the spring theme, a packet of pea seeds will be handed out to the first 150 kids with their hands outstretched.
If that’s not enough, baby goats, lambs and chickens will be on display; the Rosie Creek Carriage Co. of Suquamish will be giving horse-drawn wagon rides through town; and music will be provided by Chele’s Kitchen.
Other than that, vendors – required to live on the island or in the North Kitsap area (with some exceptions) – will as always try to sell enough product to pay for their booth fee.
What is different, however, is that the nonprofit organization is taking a more aggressive marketing approach in an effort to bring more islanders to the event, which is held every Saturday through the end of October.
“We’ve tried a lot of different ways to connect with people here and now we’re going to do it more electronically,” said Brian MacWhorter, a farmer on the city’s Day Road property who has been involved with the market – including as a board member – through its many twists and turns.
“We have felt for many years that we’re losing out on a lot of islanders who just don’t know about us, partly because we are a bedroom community,” he said. “So we’ve been trying to figure out how to reach those people, and we think by changing our marketing strategy we can do that.”
The board decided to open the process by advertising for a new market manager, which meant that Susan Vanderwey, who had been the market’s manager for the last seven years, wouldn’t be receiving a new one-year contract. The board advertised on Craigslist and throughout the Puget Sound, but eventually hired someone they knew well.
Martha Roben-Hathaway was the market’s manager when it moved to its current home 10 years ago, but then left the island to work with various nonprofit organizations for several years. She had recently returned to Bainbridge and applied for her old job after seeing the advertisement.
“We’re sorry if some people are upset with us going in a different direction, but we felt it was important to keep the market viable and we just have to move on,” MacWhorter said. “Martha has some great ideas and she’s perfect in that she has familiarity with us and knows a lot about electronic marketing techniques, including putting together a great website.”
He said the strategy includes connecting with people in a variety of ways, starting at the ferry terminal as commuters are going to and from their jobs in Seattle.
“We’re going to be talking to people and just letting them know what we offer them, which are farm goods grown on their island,” MacWhorter said. “Then with their email and mailing addresses, we’ll keep in contact with them and let them know what’s going on at their Saturday market.”
Patti Dusbabek, an island farmer and member of the market’s board of directors, has been a little dubious about the changes because she likes how it has grown under Vanderwey.
“The market is flourishing because we have great support from the community,” she said while scrambling to get her goods ready for Saturday’s event. “Nationally, markets like ours increased 4 percent last year. Our sales increase was 10 percent over the previous year and there’s no reason to think we won’t do it again this year.”
Carol Rolph, a board member, local farmer and the new head of the board’s marketing committee, said opening day is always exciting for the vendors and the community.
“We look forward to it all winter and we’re especially excited about it this year because it’s an anniversary for us,” she said.
The market had several temporary homes during its first 17 years, including Winslow Green and the Ace Hardware parking lot. But its current site has helped it thrive because the location is convenient with enough parking spaces nearby.
There’s concern that the island’s growing number of farmers and craftspeople will cause the market to outgrow the current space, but that’s not a problem right now.
“People are always wanting more things at the market,” said Dusbabek, who owns Holly Lane Garden, part of a former strawberry farm that now specializes in eggs (chicken, duck and goose), herbs, vegetables, flowers, fruit, berries, and breads and sweets made from what she grows on the 8.6-acre spread.
“Our farmers and crafters are pretty prolific,” she said, “and we’re dedicated to offering what the public wants, which is a wider range in organic vegetables and meat.”
There’s an increasing request for organic meat, she said, “because people here are willing to pay a little more for quality and we try to meet their needs. But providing meat is a little more complicated because it has to be processed and approved buy the Department of Agriculture.”
MacWhorter said there are a few new vendors this year, which is a sign that the market is continuing to grow.
“We just want to keep that going,” he said, “and our marketing approach will help us do that.”