Farmers’ Market looks ahead to busy season

Rachel Alexander

Photo Credit : von Hafften

Walla Walla residents walking down Main Street last weekend were treated to the smells of fresh baked bread, ripe local produce and handmade beeswax soaps. The source of this aromatic array was the Walla Walla Valley Farmers’ Market, which opened for the season on Saturday, May 1. Several dozen vendors sold everything from jewelry to apple-carrot-ginger-beet juice to a diverse group of patrons.

For Whitman students, the market is an exciting opportunity to venture off campus and interact with the local community.

“It reminds me of home and how I went to my local farmers’ market every weekend,” said first-year Nathan Wong. “It’s nice to get some exposure to the town.”

Aimee McGuire, the market manager, said she looks forward to a good season. The market will be open every Saturday and Sunday through October 30 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. About 70 vendors have signed up so far, and she expects to see more turn in paperwork as the season goes on.

“These are really good numbers,” she said.

Farmers look forward to the market as an opportunity to interact directly with customers.

“It’s a good way for people not to go through all the middlemen and chain stores,” said farmer Buddy Locati, who has sold asparagus at the market for 14 years. “It brings the community together.”

Proving his point, Locati was frequently interrupted in the process of answering questions by customers asking how he’d been during the off-season.

Farmer John Zerba also appreciates the community element of the market.

“It’s a good social occasion,” he said. “I get to meet a lot of people who I would never see.”

Zerba has been a farmer his whole life, and currently sells honey, nuts, flowers, cherries, peaches, apricots and several other fruits and vegetables at the market. Like many other farmers at the market, his farm is not certified organic, though he said he uses some organic chemicals on his farms.

Photo Credit : von Hafften

“Organic gives you an excuse to sell at a bigger price,” he said.

Locati, a third generation farmer, said his farm is not organic either.

“I’m a traditional farmer,” he said. “I’ll probably stay that way after 38 years.”

Organic or not, both farmers stressed that their customers were getting a better deal than they would get at chain stores and supermarkets. Locati sells his asparagus to local grocery stores, including Super 1 Foods and Albertsons, but says that there’s no guarantee the produce is fresh, and his prices are sometimes cheaper.

“People are wanting to buy direct,” he said. “If they can save money and get something fresh, that’s good for their pocketbooks.”

Last year’s sales support Locati’s claim. McGuire said that in spite of the recession, farmers’ sales were up 20 percent.

“People were definitely buying more of their groceries local, which is awesome,” she said.

Total market sales did fall last season, down about $30,000 from the previous year. This decline came largely from people purchasing fewer concessions and prepared food, items which are more expensive and discretionary than produce. Total reported sales for the season were about $500,000, though McGuire estimates the actual number is about 20 percent higher, since many farmers don’t report sales.

Many local restaurants and businesses also buy from the market. McGuire said seeing chefs buying fresh produce in the morning is one of her favorite parts of the market.

“That stuff is going straight to the restaurants. It’s going to be in meals that are prepared that day. It’s really cool to see that,” she said.

She believes the market provides people with more than food.

“It’s a little getaway where you can relax and eat,” she said. “I think people like to know some things are a little slower than the rest of their lives.”