A Day at the Market

Sept. 16, 2015

It’s early Saturday morning. The downtown streets of Sarasota are rich in culture and fragranced with fresh smelling fruits and vegetables. A doctor just off the night shift is shopping for a few veggies to cook with his evening meal. A mother and her little girl are buying fruit for an afternoon at the beach. A couple walks their dog, stopping to visit with the vendors while sipping fresh juice.

We are at the Sarasota Farmer’s Market, a vendor-owned market that is open every Saturday, rain or shine from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. The market attracts nearly 12,000 people on a typical Saturday during peak season (October-May), and about half-a-million visitors annually.

The downtown market anchors the community. More than 90 vendors have multiple spaces spanning two city locks. Market manager Phil Pagano says that with more and more people in tune with eating healthy, the market has evolved into more than just a place with “healthy stuff,” but a family-oriented social event.

Eva Worden of Worden Farm is a vendor during the peak season. Her farm sells more than 50 varieties of produce ranging from the popular standards such as carrots, lettuce, squash, spinach and kale to more unique vegetables, like kohlrabi, a cabbage with a large, turnip-shaped edible stem. Worden knows how to drive repeat business, too; a typical impromptu how-to “workshop” at the Worden Farm’s booth might be a lesson on freezing fresh produce or how to puree and freeze basil with olive oil to enjoy during the off-season.

“We have a loyal group of customers who know us and have visited our farm through our farm tours and events,” said Worden.

“Through conversations about the harvest and the crops that we bring back to the market, we are able to inform them about seasonality and how it effects what we bring to market each week,” she said. “Once people make a habit of shopping at the farmers market, we find that they miss it when a vegetable is not available.”

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates farmers markets in America have increased 76 percent since 2008, from 4,385 to 8,268 markets. Farmers markets have more than doubled in Florida over the past six years, with 250 Florida markets in the USDA market directory (http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/).

Heidi Brown and her husband, Tim, are third-generation citrus growers and own Brown’s Grove Citrus and Produce. The Browns have been selling produce at the Sarasota Downtown Market for more than 16 years. Heidi believes that two of the reasons farmers markets are so popular now is for the convenience of being able to buy smaller quantities and that people are just more aware of their health.

Heidi serves about 1,000 people on her busiest Saturday. “The market is a great way to meet people, visit and build your business,” she said.

While Heidi runs the downtown market, her husband Tim is busy manning a much smaller booth at the Central Sarasota Farmer’s Market just 15 minutes away in the parking lot of the Sarasota County Technical Institute. Tim co-founded this market a year ago with Todd Underhill. Both men grew up in farming. The smaller size (just 20+ vendors in peak season) means the market can really focus on educating consumers on local agriculture and giving back to the agricultural community.

“We’re trying to get consumers more connected to agriculture,” said Brown. “Community education is important. People don’t always understand the growing seasons in Florida. It’s our job to help them understand.”

To that end, the Central Market holds quarterly agricultural-related educational events, hosting guest speakers on various farming topics such as beekeeping, grass-fed beef, or the definition of organics. The market also gives back to the agricultural community by supporting the local FFA chapter with a portion of its proceeds.

It’s clear from spending just half a Saturday at two farmers markets that consumers want to meet the farmers who grow their food. While only a few miles in distance, the two markets had two distinct flavors but shared a common bond of farmers educating consumers about the food they feed their families.

Rebecca Block, a frequent visitor to the Central Sarasota Farmer’s Market summed up the farmers market experience best: “I like the variety of vegetables. The cucumbers are fresh, not waxy and it’s just a good place to go visit with the farmers and have fun.”