The Farmers’ Market Bri Built, Sort Of: Part V
How hard is it to start a winters farmers’ market? Bri DeRosa knows! She details her experience starting a farmers’ market in her Rhode Island community with her series “The Farmers’ Market Bri Built, Sort Of.” Read Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, and Part IV here.
It’s not usually a good sign when, a few days before the launch of a major endeavor, you get an email that goes something like this (I’m paraphrasing):
Oh, by the way, there’s this $200 permit you have to apply for if you guys are going to do this. I probably should have mentioned that before. Sorry!
We’d already committed with the church. I’d sent out enthusiastic Facebook invitations. Vendors were psyched. Neighbors were waiting for opening day. And “my” farmers’ market was about to become illegal.
The email was much more nicely worded than that, I assure you, but it came from the person who is responsible for the administration of the summer farmers’ markets, who’s far more knowledgeable about how these things get set up than I am. I’m still not sure how, in all the weeks of back-and-forth, we’d missed the chance to get this particular nugget of wisdom from him, but it doesn’t matter now and it didn’t on the day he sent the email. The fact remained that we had a problem, and we needed to deal with it.
My response was a bit fumbling and shocked and awkward, I’m afraid, but luckily the Lead Farmer swooped in and said she had quite a bit of downtime, she didn’t at all mind taking care of the permit issue, and she’d keep us all posted.
There were tense emails back and forth for several days. Letters had to be written and faxed to the City Clerk. There was the matter of the $200 fee, which the Lead Farmer had to volunteer to front for us (she’d be reimbursed by the market). And, inconveniently, there was a permit hearing that had to be attended to finalize everything… four days after our scheduled opening.
I got an email from the Lead Farmer that said something like, “I think we should go ahead and open anyway. What’s the worst that happens?”
Thank goodness she was feeling intrepid, because I wasn’t sure how daring I felt as far as crossing the city clerk’s office was concerned. I said I thought that would be fine, but maybe I’d hold off on the last of the marketing until we were “legal.”
So it was that, at 5 p.m. on an extremely cold November evening, I dragged my six-year-old son with me across the church parking lot to the breezeway where I could already see tables and crates being set up. Three vendors were there with tables laden: The Lead Farmer, who had also brought the wares of the farm with the difficult-to-access greenhouses; the honey man; and the fish guy. It would have been a beautiful sight, if not for the fact that the lights weren’t working, we were missing five vendors, and the ones who were there were squeezed into what had SEEMED like a perfectly spacious breezeway with barely enough room to stow their personal belongings behind the tables.
Deep breaths. It was a farmers’ market, still, of sorts. Not an ideal market. But a market.
They got some of the lights working in the breezeway, and old living room lamps that had been donated to the church for resale at its bazaar were dragged in for additional light. I investigated the cramped space issue and arranged to have the whole operation moved up into the (much roomier) church narthex for the following market, if everyone could just suffer through one night of channeling their inner sardines. In the meantime, I told Joe the fish guy that he really shouldn’t lean backwards, since he’d set himself up with his chair at the top of an open stairwell. “We’ve got insurance, right?” one of the market volunteers asked me later in the evening, eyeing that particular setup. I just grinned.
It wasn’t lavish. It wasn’t seamless. It wasn’t what I had envisioned in the first place. Heck, it wasn’t even technically legal. But it WAS a farmers’ market…”
As to the vendor absences…two were unexplained, but the others, the Lead Farmer told me, were just sick – laid low, probably, by the same mystery virus that had been wiping out pretty much everyone in the community (including my own family). “They’ll be here next time,” she assured me. I held my breath and hoped there would BE a next time. It was still early, the doors weren’t yet open, and I had no idea if anyone was even going to show up.
With a bored, hungry Kindergartener in tow and things to accomplish at home, I had to accept the fact that I was not going to be of much help, and I headed home to get everyone fed. I promised to come back later, not only to check on how things were going, but to do my own shopping. I’d buy something from everyone, I vowed to myself. I’d make sure they all at least sold SOMETHING.
When I got back to the church at 6:30 – exactly halfway through our two-hour market – the tables were nearly bare.
“It’s been GREAT,” the Lead Farmer told me. “People have been coming! They’re spreading the word!”
Joe the fish guy, still precariously perched in the Spot of Death, had a big tray of ice in front of him, and not much else. The Honey Man had a few jars and some sticks left. And the majority of the vegetables, eggs, and homemade nime chow – a favorite treat in our neighborhood, made by one of the farmers from her own goods – were gone. I managed to snag one of the last orders of nime chow, which was a lucky thing, since my husband had threatened to disown me if I didn’t come through for him.
It wasn’t lavish. It wasn’t seamless. It wasn’t what I had envisioned in the first place. Heck, it wasn’t even technically legal. But it WAS a farmers’ market, and a pretty successful one, at that. The Lead Farmer cheerily assured me that she’d finish up with all the permit mess, and not to worry. The church folks asked if I could provide more marketing materials so they could help better spread the word. The neighbors went home with fresh, local food in their bags, which was the whole point in the first place.
We’d launched something. Only time will tell WHAT, exactly, it is. Farmers’ markets, it turns out, have a funny way of taking on their own lives and their own personalities. Ours, I expect, will emerge and evolve over time. While we wait to see what it is we’re building, at least we’ll have the promise of nime chow, and the relief of knowing that Joe the fish guy is still, against all odds, in one piece. I suspect that these are the things that really matter, at least in our neighborhood.
Photo Credit: Tomiko Peirano
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