Farmers markets, public markets, Saturday markets - whatever you call them, they're sprouting up everywhere. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the number of farmers markets nationwide has grown more than 400 percent since 1994, and 9.6 percent in the past year. It's estimated that Idaho has about 50 markets, including at least seven in Ada and Canyon counties.
Peddling and celebrating fresh, locally grown produce and other products can be a struggle. A dispute last summer within the management of the Capital City Public Market, the Valley's biggest, led to the dismissal of its longtime executive director and the creation of a competing market a few blocks away. A market in Meridian folded, replaced in June by a new market tied to a giant shopping center going up at Eagle Road and Fairview Avenue. Newmarkets like that may take years to turn a profit.
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THE MARKET BUSINESS
Some markets are privately owned and managed. Others reflect a city or developer's efforts to boost traffic in a local business district. Many are operated as nonprofit corporations as an outgrowth of the founders' commitment to local producers.
"No market gets profitable in the first five years," says Courtney Feider, owner of the Boise marketing firm Adrian + Sabine, which owns and manages the East End Market at Bown Crossing and the new Public Market at The Village at Meridian. Feider says market managers must prepare for a 10-year commitment before expecting reasonable returns.
While markets vary in size, the vendor and product mix seems consistent over time and place: local fruits, produce and meat; arts and crafts; prepared and on-site food; and music.
"One of our basic rules is that 75 percent of the product (in a vendor's booth) has to be grown or raised by the vendor," says Quency Murphey, president of the small Kuna Farmers Market. "You can pretty much tell the stuff that our vendors have did not come from the dollar store, and it's not what you're going to find at Home Depot or Costco."
WHAT IS A 'TRUE' MARKET?
Look carefully and you may discern differences in focus among markets. Some feature more crafts and goods. Some focus more heavily on local agriculture.
Downtown Boise's two markets are a case in point. The Capital City Public Market, founded in 1994, spreads across 8th and Bannock streets, while the upstart Boise Farmers Market does business in a leased parking lot at 10th and Grove streets.
Farmers Market Manager Karen Ellis has a target formula for the mix of vendors at her market: 70 percent selling locally grown food and produce, 10 percent artists, 10 percent on-site food vendors, and 10 percent offering prepared foods such as pies and jellies.
"We feel (the Farmers Market) is more of true farmers market" than the Capital City market, says Seth Mathews of Mathews Family Farm in Weiser, who sells honey, chicken and lamb at both. "But as far as sales go, (the two markets are) about equal. The other market has maybe more people, but the people who are buying there almost every week also tend to come over here."
At Capital City, the target mix is divided among growers, artisans and food vendors. Its website says the market serves as an "incubator for independent, seasonal micro business and provides a beneficial marketplace for vendors, Downtown merchants and shoppers."
CAPITAL CITY CONFLICT
Last year's rift apparently was caused by a combination of philosophical, business and management issues, depending upon who you talk to.
It resulted in the firing of Ellis, Capital City's founder. It generated bad publicity, raised questions and caused some agricultural vendors to leave. They launched the new farmers market this spring with Ellis as manager.
Capital City's new executive director, Lisa Duplessie, is careful in describing the split.
"What happened last fall was for the best for Capital City Public Market," Duplessie says. "Our job for the market is to create a safe, reliable, secure place for (vendors) to come down and make money, and I can honestly tell you that I don't feel that was the position the market was in a year ago.
"Karen did a wonderful job building this market, but I can't then go in and vilify her for things that were a (private) personnel issue."
Janie Burns, owner of Meadowlark Farm in Nampa, remains an outspoken critic of the Capital City market.
Burns, who raises lambs and chickens, is an advocate of Idaho's local food movement, a former member and vendor at the Capital City market and one of the new market's founders.
At the heart of Burns' discontent is that some vendors at Capital City have sold food or other items they did not raise or make.
Dishonest vendors "can slip in product that they bought somewhere else, and no one's the wiser, unless you're caught," Burns says. "We know there are people reselling product. They're still at Capital City Public Market, and we can't stand it."
At the new market, "We work very hard to gain and maintain their faith that when we say we are growing something, we are," Burns says.
Duplessie acknowledges there was reselling in the past, but says incidents were few and market managers responded.
"We are a 100 percent producer-only market," she says. "We have always been 100 percent producer-only and have always done site visits when there is a concern that a vendor is not growing or producing what they say.
"I've already been on three (site visits) this year. In the 10 years that I've been here, I can recall three vendors that have been asked to no longer participate at the market because it was found that they were not producing or growing what they were selling."
One vendor now is appealing the market's charge of reselling, Duplessie says.
SELLERS' SUCCESS STORIES
Some vendors don't choose sides.
Mathieu Choux, owner of Gaston's Bakery and Le Cafe de Paris, was staffing a booth at the new market one recent Saturday but sells at both.
"We've done Capital market for 12 years, and when this one started, we were excited for the opportunity to do a second market," he says.
"There is definitely more farm and less art here. I think they are both great, but this one is a little more focused on food, and the other one has more, different vendors, artists, more wineries. I know they are both busy."
Garrett Brown, owner of Brown's Buffalo Ranch in Nyssa with 200 animals, says being at both markets with coolers full of bison cuts is good business. On an average Saturday he sells 500 pounds of meat, including orders for bison sides and wholes.
"We go through a lot of product," Brown says. "We go through probably 50 to 60 percent of our total annual sales at the markets."
Tim Spanbauer, brewer at Boise's TableRock Brewery, says the Boise Farmers Market seemed like a good place to do some test marketing one recent Saturday.
"We're trying to gauge the public's response on different containers of beer and let them know what we're doing and maybe talk a few people into going there for lunch today," Spanbauer said.
"We've participated in the other market quite a bit last year and had pretty good success there. We wanted to try this new market out. I think the people who come to this type of market are the people that are going to come to our restaurant and enjoy our hand-made food and hand-crafted beer. These are our people."
Even children see business potential in the markets.
Renee Ross, 13, likes the crowds at the Capital City market. She stands on a busy corner, sings and plays her guitar every Saturday with an open guitar case at her feet.
"I just like to share music with people, and I love it," she says. "I want to get my name out there in the music business, and I think this is a good place to start. It's fun - I get to play music, and I also get paid for it."
Lennon S. Reid: firstname.lastname@example.org