By Joseph Robertia
Among the sure signs of summer on the central Kenai Peninsula are the return of salmon and the crowds come to harvest them, the grow-while-the-growing’s-good burst of wild foliage, and the efforts of the green thumbed to similarly make the most of what climate, ecosystem and science allow.
Starting soon, the fruits and vegetables of those local labors will be available for customers at a bounty of farmers markets in the area.
One of the most food-oriented of the seasonal markets is the Farmers Fresh Market, opening June 3 and running from 3 to 6 p.m. every Tuesday into September. It’s in the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank parking lot, on Kalifornsky Beach Road and Community College Drive.
“This is a collaborative effort by local growers, the food bank and Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District to promote local sustainable agriculture, provide an outlet for producers of small quantities of products, raise awareness about nutritious local food and provide healthy, fresh, local food to everyone in the community,” said Dan Funk, an organizer for the market. “Our vendors are farmers. We only sell food, plants, flowers — no crafts.”
The virtues of buying local produce are many, Funk said, including that food is fresher, lasts longer once purchased and reduces the carbon footprint by not having to ship produce from the Lower 48.
“At the height of the season last year we had nine farmers selling honey, flowers, plants, fruit trees and bushes, lots of different greens, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, radishes, jams, strawberries, raspberries, herbs, cabbage, eggs, squash — you name it. We try to keep what’s available updated on our Facebook page,” he said.
Having the market on Tuesdays gives customers who spend weekends fishing, hiking and otherwise recreating an opportunity to still purchase local goods, as well as those working in town during the week.
“Our farmers picked Tuesday so as not to compete with the weekend markets and make it easier for local restaurants and people on the way home from work to shop there. We did have restaurants and lodges as regular customers and hope to have more this season,” he said.
Those interested in becoming a vendor can learn more from the market’s policy handbook. Vendors must be willing to sign a statement of intent, agreeing to follow state and local laws governing the use of certified scales, safe food handling, sales tax collection and agreeing to sell only local food, Funk said. There’s a one-time $20 startup fee for advertising, and a minimum weekly $10 donation, in produce or cash, averaged over the whole season for a space at the market. The donation goes to the food bank. Produce is used in the Fireweed Diner kitchen at the food bank.
“We hope customers will also donate to the food bank,” Funk said. “We do ask farmers to commit to the entire season, but I want as many farmers and variety as possible. I haven’t turned anyone away.”
This season the market will also hold gardening activities for kids, a class in square-foot gardening that coincides with the market, music and other events, Funk said.
“We want to have the market self-managing next year and I’d like to see it grow into a community education hub for sustainable agriculture, big enough to encourage more people to grow and sell locally. More events, music, classes and more fresh, local food. The limitations are what people can grow and how many people are buying local,” Funk said.
For more information, contact Funk at 283-8732, ext. 108, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The limits on what people can grow have not yet been reached, according to surveys conducted by the Kenai Soil and Water District, which polled at the Farmers Fresh Market and the Soldotna Wednesday Market. The surveys were conducted last year as part of the Local Food Campaign, with help from a Division of Agriculture and a Cooperative Marketing grant, said Heidi Chay, manager of the Kenai Soil and Water District.
“Close to 600 people attended the Farmers Fresh or Soldotna markets the week we surveyed. The overwhelming majority, 84 percent, said they were more aware of Alaska-Grown food options in 2013 than in 2012,” she said.
“At both markets, when asked, ‘What change to the market would make you visit more often?’ Respondents answered, ‘More veggies’ and ‘More vendors.’ Demand appears to be strong. All those overproducing gardeners … we need to get them in business,” Chay said. “In a separate survey of producers, nine out of 13 (vendors) had increased sales in 2013 over 2012, and 10 of 13 said they planned to increase production this year.”
Annette Villa, organizer of the Soldotna Wednesday Market, said she is excited about moving to the Peninsula Center Mall this year, from Soldotna Creek Park due to construction at the park. It begins June 4 and will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. throughout the summer.
“It’s a good opportunity for locals to shop locally or make a living selling locally, and visitors get to share in the atmosphere of Soldotna,” she said.
This market typicaly draws 15 to 20 vendors, and Villa said she tries to draw in a variety of vendors.
“I try to have something for everyone — veggies, food vendors, crafts and home businesses,” she said. “It supports our local economy and people get produce that hasn’t been sitting in a truck for a week. Most of our produce is picked that morning or the night before. Local grown is the way to go.”
The cost for vendor space at the Soldotna Wednesday Market is $20 per week, and musicians also are welcome.
“They’re offering services so there is no charge for them and they’re welcome to put out a hat or whatever. It’s a great way for them to show their craft, as well,” Villa said.
For more information, contact Villa at 252-7264 or by email at email@example.com.
Soldotna also boasts the Central Peninsula Farmers Market, which takes place Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. from June through September in the Soldotna Elementary bus turnaround parking lot on east Corral Avenue and the Kenai Spur Highway. For more information, contact Clayton Hillhouse at 262-5463.
Soldotna isn’t the only place offering outlets for farmers to sell their produce. Johna Beech, president and COO of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, said that the Kenai Saturday Market has garden-grown goods as well as an eclectic group of Alaska-made wares.
“We’re not necessarily a farmers market, per se. We have vegetables, but they’re late bloomers — that usually come in August, and it’s lettuces, squashes, things like that. We also have a few vendors who do honey, jams and jellies,” she said.
The Kenai Saturday Market encourages vendors of Alaska-made crafts.
“We want to promote Alaskan-made and -grown items in order for people to learn about and support our area’s small businesses. They can bring articles and crafts of any kind as long as they’re Alaskan-made, and any foods as long as they follow the DEC standards. We have vendor packets available here with more information,” she said.
The Kenai Saturday Market, which runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., begins May 24 and runs through Sept. 13, and varies in size because of its sliding payment scale for leasing 12-by-12 feet of vending space. Last year there were 40 to 45 vendors at the height of the season, she said. The rate for the first Saturday is $50, with increasing discounts the longer a vendor stays.
For more information, contact Harold Piland at 283-1991 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.