Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sentinel column - 6/29/12

We’re entering the biggest week of the year at the market – when our customers bring out those grills and gather with family and friends to celebrate the 4th of July.

This Saturday, the market will celebrate the holiday by hosting its Cooking for a Cause breakfast to benefit Crosslines, our regional food and clothing pantry. For the last 10 years, it’s been our biggest fundraiser of the year. My husband, Phil Richardson, who ramrods the Saturday breakfast, is gearing up to cook extra quantities of farm fresh eggs cooked to order, biscuits, gravy and sausages. Lisa Sweet has organized friends and members of Central United Methodist church to prepare and serve the breakfast. I’ll be getting out the donation jar so we can all demonstrate one of the best things about our country and citizens – generosity towards our neighbors in need. America has a big heart and we see it every year when it comes to supporting Crosslines.

(Last week's Cooking for a Cause volunteers for Crimestoppers.)

And this should be the best Crosslines year yet because the Saturday market has come of age. We added Saturdays to the market schedule about four years ago. Saturday is far and away the most popular market day nationwide, but we were a bit slow on following suit. When we opened in 2000, Carthage had the only other farmers market in the area and they were open on Wednesday and Saturday. We thought it wise to be open on different days. At the time we thought we would be competing for customers. That shows what novices we were. Actually, farmers are usually in far shorter supply than customers for markets. We’re lucky here in southwest Missouri that there are so many small farmers. In many other parts of the state, markets are searching for farmers. We have for several years directed farmers to other markets unless they have a product that’s missing at ours.

Five years ago we realized that none of our farmers sold at Carthage. Adding Saturdays was an opportunity for our farmers to increase their sales, though it also meant more hours for our volunteers. But it was time. We had way too many customers and vendors coming on Fridays and it was our hope that we could bump some into Saturday. And, too, we had many folks who could not come to a weekday market because of their work schedule and we didn’t like leaving them out almost as much as they didn’t like being left out.

The first couple of years our Saturday market was small. Word was still getting out to the customers and we didn’t have a lot of produce on Saturdays. Last year Saturdays had grown to the point of being similar to the Tuesday market in terms of sales and customers which meant it was about half of Friday.

As I began reviewing vendor applications this year, I still was in the mindset that we needed to build Saturdays. I should have considered a little more carefully because we are absolutely packed now with vendors on Saturdays. It’s often as full or even fuller than on Fridays. And sales are way up. Saturdays have been running at about 80% of Fridays and are continuing to increase. I don’t think it will be long before Saturday surpasses Friday as our biggest market of the week.

Saturday has a lot of other pluses from the market’s standpoint. Because it’s hard for some vendors to do two days in a row, we have been able to bring in new vendors on Saturdays. Hazel’s Bakery is a Saturday-only baker. Several of our small egg ranchers are Saturday only. Certain types of crafts are currently allowed on Saturdays.

Saturday is our day for nutrition education when we demonstrate a healthy, easy recipe using market produce. Tomorrow Trish Reed, who catered our Friday meals for several years, will demonstrate (and you can sample) Chilled Cucumber Soup. Now doesn’t that sound good in the midst of this heat we’re experiencing? (photo: Trish teaching folks at the market how to make sugar-free freezer jam.)

On Saturdays we can book bands unavailable weekdays. And on Saturdays we’re seeing lots and lots of young families.

Saturday is also a relatively calm day compared to Friday. Last Saturday we did have well over one thousand customers but they didn’t all come through in the first half-hour. Instead they filtered in throughout the morning, making for a much more pleasant experience than the “search and secure” approach many of our Friday customers take when market opens.

Luckily, this year we’re experiencing such abundance that there’s no need to brave the crowds at opening. Folks can come at 11:30 on Fridays and still get everything we started out with (excepting for blackberries, which are nearing the end of their season). By then, the lines are usually short or non-existent and the traffic and parking much easier. In fact, we’ve been sending home some sweet corn and tomatoes at every market lately and even sent peaches home a couple of days. The market is just loaded with produce.

Today we have Center Creek Bluegrass playing. Granny Shaffer’s at the Market is serving meatloaf and mashed potatoes for lunch ($6). And, in keeping with the season and the market setting, they also have boiled and buttered sweet corn from Wells Farm for $2 an ear.

Tomorrow, Red Bridge Bluegrass will keep your toes tapping with their high energy style and four-part harmonies while you enjoy breakfast and shopping.

Tuesday, July 3rd, should be a big day for the market. Just as Black Friday on the day after Thanksgiving is a big day for retailers, the day before the 4th of July is typically our biggest day of the year. We might call it our Red, White and Blue day for lots of reasons. Small businesses, which are the backbone of our nation’s economy, incubate and flourish at the market. We’re a tossed salad of American citizens ranging from those with Native American roots to first generation immigrants. The market is full of small farmers and ranchers following in the footsteps of the independent, self-sufficient farmers and ranchers who settled this country. The American Dream? Most of our market folks feel they’re living it. We love what we do.

Zoua Hang Yang shares the market experience with students from the Webb City school district - everybody gets a cucumber!