Market is near, farmers aren’t

At the 2004 Bainbridge Island Farmers Market, Harland Walker-Young of Persephone Farm (left) talks to customer Mary Fearey. - JIM BRYANT photo
At the 2004 Bainbridge Island Farmers Market, Harland Walker-Young of Persephone Farm (left) talks to customer Mary Fearey.
— image credit: JIM BRYANT photo

With the summer season just 11 days away, growers are in dwindling supply.

Last season, revenue and attendance were up at the popular Bainbridge Island Farmers Market.

The only thing that hasn’t been growing is the number of farmers.

“Like other markets, we’re facing the loss of some growers this year,” market manager Susan Vanderwey said, just 11 days before the market’s season opener. “Not only will we miss them, but their absence has an underlying impact.”

To be a certified farmers market, the state requires that more than 50 percent of market revenues come from growers of produce, fruit, herbs, plants, flowers, eggs, fish and shellfish, beef and value-added foods created from goods grown by the processor.

“Because the calibr of artists, artisans, processors and concessionaires at our market is so high, the revenue balance is getting too close for comfort,” Vanderwey said. “We need more growers.”

When the market opens April 1, running from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday through Oct. 21, it will not be the only one in the state that faces a declining number of growers, as Vanderwey learned at the recent Washington State Farmers’ Market Managers Conference.

“Despite a rapidly growing consumer desire for farm-fresh goods, the number of small growers around the country is dwindling due to retirement, moves, illness, family concerns, land prices that prohibit expansion, and all sorts of other reasons,” Vanderwey said.

“And while development of rural areas means more customers for farm-grown goods, it also means that property prices rise to a point that puts farmland out of the reach of new growers.”

Absent from the market this year will be Laurie Solinsky, retiring from farming after selling plant starts at the Bainbridge market for years.

Also not returning is Danny Rodriguez of Island Grown Farm, who was a regular at the market for a period of six or seven years. The many tiny struggles of farming became too great to continue and raise a family on the island, he said, and he has now turned to work elsewhere.

“It’s the economics of living on the island. Property taxes are going up – not that the levies are bad – that’s just the way things are,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder for me to have my property.”

Elizabeth and Herman Vroom have decided to close their greenhouse operation, which used to supply hanging flower baskets at the market.

“As a family it was getting hard to balance our family life during the season – we have three kids,” Elizabeth Vroom said.

During the January-to-June growing season, the Vrooms each worked 40-60 hours a week, watering at 5 a.m. and then again at noon on hot days. To make more money, the Vrooms would have needed more land for more greenhouses.

Now Elizabeth teaches part-time at Commodore School and Herman continues his part-time landscaping business, for which he still does some baskets.

The couple say they are making more money than they did with the greenhouses, even though “hanging baskets is one of the more lucrative crops,” Elizabeth said.

Rodriguez says he faced challenges in his own neighborhood, with dogs coming onto his property killing his chickens.

While some might say “it’s just a chicken,” he said, hens are not profitable for the first six months until they begin to lay eggs, and only begin to break even in their second and third years of laying.

Last season the Kitsap County Health District started strictly enforcing rules that higher-priced farm-processed goods – such as Rodriguez’s strawberry jam – be made in a commercial kitchen. For many farmers, value-added goods are an important revenue stream. In a 2004 Friends of the Farm survey of island farmers, about half the respondents said they produce goods refined from farm products.

The cost of opening such a kitchen or renting time at one is prohibitive for him, Rodriguez said.

And while the $25 fee that vendors pay to set up at each market may seem small, “If you don’t have a lot of stuff to sell, it doesn’t make sense,” Rodriguez said.

Vanderwey says the market is making allowances for part-time growers, letting them share a booth for a few weeks if they don’t have enough for a full booth to make sense.

Applications are subject to a simple site inspection to verify that produce is being grown either on Bainbridge Island or within the boundaries of the North Kitsap School District.

Demand is not the issue. It’s a seller’s market with the number of visitors up last year and buying more.

“We had 29 percent growth last year in terms of revenue reported by vendors,” Vanderwey said. “We really invite anyone to come and talk with existing growers about where they think there are holes (in the offerings).”

Some gaps include vendors of sprouts, mushrooms and unusual varieties of fruits and vegetables. Since the retirement of Eileen Hume, hydroponic tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers have also been greatly missed, Vanderwey said.

Part of the attraction of the market is, “it’s not only a place to buy produce,” Vanderwey said. “There’s a real sense of community. You can walk the dog and you run into people. It’s like a weekly celebration. They come to enjoy themselves.”

The Vrooms say they will miss the market and appreciate all the supportive customers. Rodriguez agrees.

“It’s really sad (I won’t be returning), because I like to go. It’s so good to go down there and see people,” he said. “I really appreciate the people here on Bainbridge because they are supportive and willing to pay that extra dollar for good produce.”

* * * * *

It’s about to spring

The summer farmers market runs 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday from April 8 through Oct. 21 on the green by City Hall. Upcoming events include the home-grown sweet pea contest at the July 22 market and the home-grown Tomato Taste-Off on Aug. 26.

Produce expected on April 8 includes arugula, mustard, kale, chard, sorrel, cardoon, salad mix, radishes, braising mix, and rappini. Also, get raspberry and strawberry starts, basil and tomato plants, and soil soup to get plants off to a healthy start in your garden.

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