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To Market, To Market

I decided to follow up on one of the practical aspects of this lifestyle, the main influx of cash into small farm households.

One June morning I met Susan Vanderwey at the Bainbridge Island Farmers Market. It had been a late, cold season, and the market was only now really rolling. We sat next to a Celtic Band called The Tinker’s Dream. There is often live music at the outdoor market, which is frequented by older couples, young couples with kids in strollers, and people of all ages with dogs. All the groups try to be tolerant of each other. The venders put up open-sided tents, like party pavilions, facing two grassy walkways in rows, the tents down the center back-to-back. Between the dog leashes and the strollers, it can be difficult to place your feet and make your way to the stands where farmers hand out samples of honey and cheese and chat up the beauty of their vegetables. Cost is always in round numbers, and except for jewelry and value-added items, people always pay in cash. A couple of venders offer plates of Vietnamese or Mexican food, and that irresistible smell of food cooking in grease fills the air.

I asked how she got the job as Market Manager.

“I have a background in marketing,” she said carefully, almost a recitation. “I am a member of the Kitsap County Food Alliance, and was co-editor of the Farm Gazette for three years. I live on Bainbridge, and this is my seventh year as manager. My predecessor stayed two weeks.”
Why did the previous manager last only two weeks? I asked.
“People have certain expectations of what the market is. People see only the surface. There are occasional conflicts, especially with a lot of entrepreneurs. Part of the job is to resolve those, both during market hours and in general.”

Today, there are about fifteen produce venders, and eight others. There are ten value-added (processed) food venders, three garden (live plant) venders, and fourteen people selling non-food gift items. Some venders have more than one booth, or share. The market has about sixty venders over the course of the season.

“The kinds of conflicts I deal with include, somebody’s tent is over too far, and they can’t get their truck in. Someone is selling something too much like theirs. Then there’s parking: Everyone unloading and parking at the same time. There are times this job just makes me so happy I could elevate. Other times, I go home and go straight to bed.

“People come up to me each week and ask, ‘How do I become a vender?’ I ask them, What do you want to sell? They see the social aspect of it and think, ‘I can do that!’”

I have heard this from people, too, that they might start a garden and sell at the farmers market, as though growing the vegetables was something that just happened, like Jack carelessly throwing down his beans to grow the beanstalk.

I lost my voice trying to be heard over The Tinker’s Dream, which I suspect started out with a different name, and was ready to put some distance between myself and the band. I made my way out between the Corgis, terriers and dogs of more obscure origin, around the baby strollers the size of Volkswagens. On a good day, the atmosphere of the Farmers Market is that of a small festival, with music and sometimes entertainment for the children. On a sad day, it rains hard and people stay home with their coffee and newspapers, as fickle as the weather that rules our lives.

This year, the market opens on April 9.
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