Farmers markets bloom as vendors educate, bring local produce to customers

Two customers at the Open Air Market in downtown Phoenix inspect produce grown at Steadfast Farm in Queen Creek. The market, at Central Avenue and McKinley Street, is open every Saturday and offers local produce, crafts, arts and musicians. (Photo by Graham Bosch/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Farmers markets are gaining more attention from Valley residents, helping small businesses reach customers and find their footing in a competitive market.

“I think that we’re seeing another beginning growth, a bloom of markets, and we’ll be seeing more of that,” Dee Logan, senior coordinator for the Arizona Community Farmers Markets Group, an association that organizes several farmers markets in the Phoenix area.

At least two dozen farmers markets are sprawled across the Valley, with more operating statewide, drawing thousands of tourists and residents.

“I think that they are a growing trend everywhere, hopefully,” said Bo Mostow, owner and manager of Uptown Farmers Market in Phoenix. “But Arizona especially, because we are able to grow year-round. So many other states can’t.”

Markets in the Phoenix metropolitan area host anywhere from 40 to 160 vendors, but average numbers fall between 70 and 100 booths at mid-sized farmers markets. Some struggle to survive, but many serve as startups for small businesses, encourage buying, preparing and cooking locally grown food and educate customers about farming and sustainability in Arizona.

“We’ll always be a part of the farmers markets no matter what happens,” said Pauline Pimienta, one of the owners of The Tamale Store in Phoenix. “I feel like they just keep growing every year.”

Vendors said they like the personal contact with customers.

“Growing up as a cotton farmer, we would sell the cotton to brokers on the phone,” said Guy Gillespie, owner of On the Vine Farms in Casa Grande. “Here, I get to see the end product, talk to customers and see what they like and get pats on the back and that kind of thing.”

Customers visit markets to buy fresh produce, support local farmers and learn more about the origins of the food they buy.

“I come here for my own personal groceries,” said Nick Shivka, 30, a Phoenix resident who frequents the Open Air Market in downtown Phoenix on Saturdays. “This is where I get all my produce.”

Esther Birtcher, 55, said she enjoys the variety of goods offered at markets.

“It’s so much to see,” Birtcher said.

(Map by Graham Bosch/Cronkite News)

Facilitating small, local businesses

Mostow said she “absolutely” believes farmers markets can help small businesses grow and find more customers. The Uptown market, which opened two years ago, has about 80 vendors each Wednesday from October to June and 160 vendors on Saturdays year-round.

“All these little businesses coming together, we’re like a small business made up of 240 other small businesses,” Mostow said. “It just gives them kind of a bigger platform.”

Logan said the farmers markets serve as a business incubator, getting feedback from customers on what they like and don’t like.

The owners of The Tamale Store credit the success of their business to the attention they’ve received through farmers markets across the state.

“If it wasn’t for the markets, I can tell you that we wouldn’t be where we’re at today, because of the amount of customers we’ve been able to gain from going outside of this 1,300-square-foot place,” Pimienta said at The Tamale Store’s brick-and-mortar shop in Phoenix.

The Tamale Store sells food at the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market and other markets in Arizona. Pauline Pimienta, an owner, credits its success to market customers. (Photo by Graham Bosch/Cronkite News)

Businesses don’t have to worry about expenses like marketing, leasing and other overhead costs.

“You’ve been to Whole Foods?” asked Kenny Aschbacher, owner and founder of Fish Hugger.
“You see what they spend on the building? You see my overhead? My actual cost is a tent, tables, tablecloths. So I can have better food at lesser prices than Whole Foods because of my lack of overhead.”

Scottsdale resident Kaleigh Huntley, 27, said she wants to start coming to the market more often for weekly groceries.

“It’s close, and it’s just better food, and that way I don’t have to do the whole grocery store thing,” Huntley said. “It is more expensive, but it’s worth it.”

Shivka said he finds the produce to be cheaper than at the supermarket.

“It’s definitely less expensive, which is the key,” Shivka said. “I spend way less on produce, and I know it’s coming from farms that are here.”

The only problem with buying fresh groceries is that they don’t keep as long and have to be eaten quickly, said Jeff Slim, 31, another regular at the Open Air Market.

“I’d have to eat a lot of greens in one week, basically, before it all went bad,” Slim said.

Vendors face financial challenges

The small size of the farmers markets can sometimes make it difficult for vendors to earn enough money to keep themselves afloat, making it necessary to seek out other markets, festivals and concert venues across Arizona to sell their products, said Molly Sedlmeier, who co-owns Molly’s Tamales in Glendale with her husband, Felipe.

Even vendors who are content with their farmers market business can face challenges getting a foot in the door. Some markets have waiting lists to participate, and vendors can wait months or years to get a spot at popular markets, Pimienta said.

“Roadrunner Park took us like four years to get into,” Pimienta said. “I’m still on a waiting list for Flagstaff, for the Sunday one. I’ve been calling them every summer for nine years. They’re still not budging, but only because they have another tamale vendor out there.”

The sizzling heat also means less opportunities to sell during summer, when some farmers markets shut down or curb their hours, Aschbacher said.

Backed by history

Arizona’s “original farmers market,” at Heritage Square in downtown Phoenix, opened more than two decades ago with only four vendors, Logan said. The market existed only briefly but was soon joined by Roadrunner Park Farmers Market, which is the longest-running market in the state. Established in 1990, the Roadrunner Park market now has about 50 to 60 vendors, most of whom are food producers, Logan said.

At first, regulatory issues with local governments made it difficult to launch farmers markets, Logan said.

“We’ve had our hurdles over the years, and typically they involve some committee or some council or some part of the county health department or something like that,” said Anita Reale, a member of the association.

It took more than six years to get things settled with county officials and make it easier for growers to enter the market, Logan said. By digging through state statutes, Logan and her team were able to find out which permits and regulations applied to small, agricultural producers.

Logan and Cindy Gentry, who founded the Open Air Market at the downtown Phoenix Public Market were instrumental in paving the way for others to start farmers markets in the Valley, according to farmers market managers.

Reale said she started attending Roadrunner Park in 1998 when it was one of the only markets in the Valley. Even with the additional markets that have opened over the years, the community atmosphere makes competition between farmers markets a non-issue, she said.

“I think it’s a very good thing,” Reale said. “We have a lot of markets in this Valley now, and all of ours still do really, really well.”

Click on the image to get a 360 view of vendors at the Open Air Market.(Photo by Graham Bosch/Cronkite News)

Markets can struggle to stay in business

But markets come and go, and longevity is no guarantee of continued success.

The Mesa Farmers Market, which had about 40 vendors, closed in late 2016 as development in downtown Mesa made access difficult for customers of the 22-year-old market. The light rail station at Main Street, which opened in 2015, was one of the main issues, Logan said.

“It created a lot of confusion downtown, and we just never got the legs back,” Logan said. “We did move last year to the Main Street area, but we just did not have the visibility, and it was hard for the community — the folks that had been coming to the market — to figure out how to get to the market.”

Opening new markets can be a challenge, partly due to other events in the Valley. The Downtown Tempe Authority approached the farmers market association about the possibility of a market on Mill Avenue. But the group quickly realized it wasn’t a good site for it because the event schedule for the business-district street is so packed that the market would have to close down on a regular basis, Logan said.

One of the biggest challenges with a new market is attracting the farmers, Mostow said.

“They are the market,” she said. “Cindy told me, ‘you’ll never be able to open a market unless you have the ear of the farmers,’ and that’s definitely the first barrier.”

Finding the land and parking necessary to accommodate so many people is another barrier, Mostow said.

“When you think about it, it’s really a pop-up party once or twice a week,” Mostow said.

Creative marketing methods can help markets reach customers and get vendors involved, Reale said.

“There’s a lot of things you can do, like direct mailers, just word-of-mouth, boots on the ground, and then nowadays social media is huge,” Reale said. “You really have to have a social media presence to really have something that thrives with different demographics.”

Customers will come once a location is established and farmers are committed, Mostow said.

Shifting from crafts to local produce

After the trials of establishing a new market, there’s one focus: the food.

In recent years, many markets have shifted away from offering other items such as art or home craft products to focus on food and place a spotlight on local farmers, Reale said.

“We started adding arts and crafts back in I think ‘92 or ‘93, but we’re reversing that,” Logan said. “Most of our markets are only farming and food. We have very few markets that are craft-oriented, and that would be because we have been doing it so long we’ve been able to work with direct producers, small growers, small food producers, and continually add them.”

Before opening the Uptown Farmers Market, Mostow said she established limits as to which vendors could sell there. The categories — food, plant, kitchen, garden and health — include farm produce as well as other plant- and food-related products, like soil and knives. Mostow said five to eight booths are set aside each week for “visiting artists” such as jewelers and clothing-makers.

“One of the biggest complaints I heard, especially 15 years ago or 10 years ago, was, ‘how can you call this a farmers market? This is more like a craft show,'” Reale said.

Market managers learn from their consumers, and the consumers want more food and more farming, Reale said. Those are the “biggest and best markets,” she said.

Sometimes the landowners have requirements for what can be sold. The Roadrunner Park market contracts with Phoenix, and city officials did not want crafts because the market can hold about 50 vendors at most, she said.

“That really limits who you can accept into your market,” Reale said. “So that one made it kind of easier to shift out, and they gave us a couple years to transition to being food and farming, mainly.”

Click on the image to take a 360 tour of the Open Air Market.(Photo by Graham Bosch/Cronkite News)

Educating customers

Learning about Arizona produce is a side benefit.

Mark Lewis runs the “Chmachyakyakya 8,000 Year Crops” booth at the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market, where he teaches customers about the value of local edible vegetation.

Engaging customers in conversation about their food can introduce them to the possibility of growing or foraging their own, but the noticeable difference in quality is what keeps people interested, Lewis said.

“I can’t stress how much better everything tastes,” he said. “The vegetables taste like vegetables. They have an actual flavor.”

Customer Gina Thomas said she always makes sure to visit farmers markets to sample the local offerings while traveling. She especially looks for honey, which she said tastes different in each new place and can help with regional and seasonal allergies.

“You learn about fruits and vegetables you’ve never seen before,” said Thomas, 31, a Chicago resident who stopped by the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market while in town to visit family.

“Wherever you go to a farmers market, you’re always learning something new about the ecology, the culture of the place that you’re at,” Thomas said. “It’s so cool.”

Shivka, the Open Air Market customer, said he doesn’t get a lot of unsolicited information from farmers, but he likes to ask.

“I like to converse with them in the hopes that I might learn something new,” Shivka said. “The best in terms of giving out information to make sure you know about the produce is the Community Exchange.”

The Community Exchange Table is a group at Phoenix Public Market where local gardeners can bring surplus produce for clerks to sell, providing gardeners with money for seeds or tools.

Community Exchange members are “super knowledgeable” and will answer any questions customers ask, and they ask questions as well, Shivka said.

“If it’s not from Arizona, it’s not like I’m not going to eat it,” Shivka said. “But it’s really great to be able to buy Arizona produce while I’m here.”

The majority of people don’t have control over where their food comes from, Lewis said. Much of it comes from far away and uses a lot of fuel to get to the stores where it’s sold, he said.

“If you’re young, maybe you never had a peach that you are so happy to eat that it just goes down the side of your face,” Lewis said. “But over in Queen Creek, there are people growing it, and they’re fantastic. And those people need to make a living.”

Customers may not be familiar with local farming, but farmers who sell directly to consumers have the chance to share their knowledge, Gillespie said. Gillespie’s family farm was founded by his aunt and has been selling at Roadrunner Park Farmers Market since 2005.

“It just legitimizes me being here and me as a farmer when you have the knowledge of that kind of thing,” Gillespie said. “More people are used to just going to stores and picking something out.”

Thomas, the customer in Scottsdale, said it’s important to know where food is coming from. She said that when she lived in California, farmers made sure to tell customers about the source of their food, how they grew the food and the ethics behind their practices.

“People are passionate about it,” Thomas said. “That’s really fun.”

Farmers markets in the Phoenix area boost small businesses and entice customers to buy fresh, locally grown produce. (Photo by Graham Bosch/Cronkite News)

Tilling future of farmers markets

Enthusiasts hope farmers markets have a bright future.

“I expect them just to be bigger and better, really,” Reale said. “I think it will be long-lasting. I don’t see them ending any time soon. I really hope that we end up with more and more backyard farmers and small, independent growers.”

Mostow said the trend toward backyard gardening could make farmers markets less popular, but Reale said she doesn’t consider that a threat to business.

“There are so many people in our population that have no interest in it,” Reale said. “They don’t want to grow their own, they don’t want to make their own salsa, they don’t want to do that stuff. They want to go to the market and have someone else do it for them.”

Logan said the association is considering adding two farmers market in the North and West Valley but it’s too early to provide details.

“We’re taking baby steps,” she said. “We’re getting there.”