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"Farmers find a home in town squareMore vendors, more patrons, more sales - the market's success story."
"Carrots, as Bugs Bunny once observed, wait for no one. Neither, it seems, do the tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, greens and other produce arrayed at the Bainbridge Island Farmers' Market.It's 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning - half an hour before the market opens - and patrons are already queuing up to get first pick of the freshest picks. This line will get longer as the time gets closer to 9 o'clock, says Bob Linz, waiting with his daughter to purchase an armload of vegetables that the family will enjoy throughout the coming week.The vendors themselves have already been at work for an hour or more - setting up tents and arranging their wares, some even doing last-minute picking as the summer sunrise spread across distant fields.Nearby, young music students ready an electric piano. Finally, at the top of the hour, the clunk of a cowbell heralds the start of trade, classical music follows, and the square is in full bustle. Dozens of patrons are soon strolling among the two-dozen-plus booths; frisky dogs tussle on the green, and nearly every kid in sight is walking around with a madly twisted balloon on their head.That's the market.The fun thing about farmers' markets is it's the neighbors, it's kind of corny, you don't know what you're going to get each week, said Jennifer Callan, serving in her first year as market manager. You get to meet the farmers, she said, and you know exactly where your money's going. I like that.It's a festive scene, one that repeats itself each Saturday from spring through autumn, as the market begins to take firm root between city hall and the BPA Playhouse. And it's one that seems to be drawing bigger crowds, becoming more of a social event for patrons, and generating more revenue for local farmers and other vendors.Credit better promotion, and a permanent home.This is, Callan said, the year people are discovering the market.Home at lastThe Bainbridge Island Farmers' Market started about 25 years ago on a streetcorner, coming closest to permanence during its years in the center of Winslow Green.In 1993, a dispute with some neighboring merchants over parking there dislodged the market, but as members now concede, that proved fortuitous.The group wandered for several years - at one point settling in a gravel lot next to BPA, a site distinctly lacking in ambience - and wound up in the remote Ace Hardware lot off High School Road. Ace was actually pretty good, said longtime island farmer and market vendor Brian McWhorter. But it didn't have much character. I was behind the manure pile.During those years adrift, though, lobbying by market advocates paid off - city officials agreed to include a permanent space for the market in plans for a new city hall. With the downtown site, the market would have better parking, proximity to Winslow Way merchants and shoppers, and such unheard of amenities as a clean restroom at the back of city hall, instead of a Honey Bucket.The new market square opened in 2000, and averaged 26 vendors per week in its first season - up 25 percent from the two previous years. I think it was really wise of the city, said Art Biggert, an Eagledale farmer and market board member. This is the best way the city can help farmers - give them direct access to customers. Let farmers do what they do, and let the free market do the rest.While the first year was generally considered a success, the market faced an immediate challenge with the loss of manager Jaci Douglas, who moved to Europe with her family last winter. Enter Jennifer Callan, a three-year island resident and long-time fan of farmers' markets.Callan and her husband had visited the Bainbridge market during its dismal gravel-lot days - leaving, she now laughs, after about two minutes. But what she inherited as manager of the new market site was like a rich field ready for cultivation.We're just thrilled to have her, Biggert said.Market growthWith the agreement of the board, Callan decided to spend her first year focusing on promotion rather than further site development (foregoing, for example, purchase of a single large tent that board members say will someday cover the central market square).Callan - by trade a video producer and camera operator, with credits including Good Morning America and Bill Nye the Science Guy - began by filming a commercial to air on local cable.A small budget was established for live music each week, bringing in local performers that range from Suzuki piano students to a brass band. A guest chef program was started in July, bringing local restaurateurs to prepare signature dishes with local produce; the feature has proved so popular that it will continue indefinitely.A balloon vendor has of late taken to crafting wildly shaped creations for the kids. And the music itself acts like a magnet, visibly drawing customers up the alley from Winslow Way. The latest coup is an espresso vendor, who will debut this week.You can come down and hang out, you buy something to eat, then you stay and listen to the music, Callan said. That's what the market square has always been through history - the meeting place.That's what this is becoming.At the core, though are the vendors.The market has a maximum of 40 booth spaces, although vendors often share space to cut costs. All come from Bainbridge Island or the North Kitsap area, and farmers get preference over other merchants.Some show up every weekend, others only when they have products to sell. Fresh produce is supplemented by an array of value added products, from corn salsa to carrot ginger jam.Because their economies of scale are smaller, prices can be higher. At a recent market, fresh eggs were going for $4 a dozen. Exotic lettuce could be had for $3 a head, new potatoes for $2 a pound.But it certainly sells - it's common wisdom among regulars that if you're not at the produce stands in the first hour, you'll probably go home empty-handed.I love all the good, fresh vegetables, said market patron Carol Thornburgh, carting off items from McWhorter's stand. I love the camaraderie. We have fun here.Through the first half of the current season, the average number of vendors has climbed again, to 29.To gauge the market's success, vendors are each week asked to turn in a sale slip. Returns for the first 14 weeks show receipts are up 10 percent over last year. If sales continue to climb - very likely, as the produce season is just now getting into full swing - the market will easily clear $200,000 in gross sales this year. This, for a market that's open only once a week, four hours at a time.But with that success comes some debate over the market's future, and its character.Under the charter of the Washington State Farmers' Market Association, more than 50 percent of total gross revenues must be generated by growers, not crafts people or value-added producers.So far, farm goods are responsible for 69 percent of total sales (up from 66 percent last year); purveyors of value-added products like jams, honey and soaps accounted for 13 percent, while crafts merchants and concessionaires are at 18 percent.More crafts vendors could bring more customers, but participants guard the organization's character jealously. It is, Callan notes, a farmers' market.So crafts must be oriented toward agriculture, not mass culture - garden art and wood furniture, for example, are in; generic street-fair items are discouraged.We want to keep the kitschy stuff out, Callan said. I don't want to make it a real elite market, but I don't want it to be a hippie place, either.Another issue that has yet to be resolved is whether vendors should be able to bring in fruit from Eastern Washington. Some patrons would like to see such fare - it is produce - while others are wary that local farmers could be crowded out.McWhorter, a veteran of the market from its earliest days, worries that economic challenges and a lack of interest in agriculture by younger generations may yet overtake local farming.We may all be middlemen, he said, bringing in produce from elsewhere.Biggert is more confident.I can't wait until we have so many farmers that we're cramped for space, he said. We're not cramped yet, but it'll come, it'll come. "