Bradenton farmers market growing

chawes@bradenton.comSeptember 26, 2011 

BRADENTON -- With 30 percent more regular vendors this year than last, the potential to expand by a few more blocks, and projections of a 24 percent increase in attendees, the Bradenton Farmers Market is poised to have its strongest year ever.

“I have many more applications this year than I will be able to accept,” says Kevin Webb, creative director of Realize Bradenton, who took over organizing the market last November. He estimates 40 regular vendors will be participating this year compared to 28 last year and several more are expected to participate on a rotating basis.

Opening this Saturday and continuing through May, the weekly gathering of vendors along Old Main Street is part of a growing appreciation nationwide of farmers markets. The number of American markets has grown 17 percent in just one year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 1994, their number has quadrupled, from 1,775 to more than 7,100.

And while the area offers at least three other weekly farmers markets, Bradenton’s is solidifying its reputation as the most authentic and friendly of the area’s numerous farmers markets. Just ask Norm Whitlow, a Palmetto greens grower who is familiar with all of the area’s markets.

Whitlow says Sarasota’s market is too big and leaves him feeling like you have to have “connections” to participate. The markets at Ellenton and Lakewood Ranch, Whitlow says, don’t have the same variety of local produce. But the Bradenton Farmers Market, which kicks off Monday (Oct. 1), is truly a “farmer’s market,” Whitlow says.

“It’s really more for your actual farmer,” he says. “And it also has a lot of people that make homemade things to sell.”

That’s exactly the impression Webb is hoping the market will make. He says he has focused on shaping the weekly in-season event into “the kind of farmers’ market that Norman Rockwell would paint.”

“We don’t want to grow too fast or open the floodgates,” he said. “We want to keep it balanced. A lot of markets don’t watch that, and they end up losing the appeal of a true farmers market. They become more like flea markets.”

New participants include a local dairy farmer and makers of old-fashioned lemonade. Longtime participants include not only Whitlow, but Sheppard Farms, which has been a part of Bradenton’s farmers’ market for at least two decades.

“We always get to see a lot of our customers at the market. And it does help our sales,” says Moses Sheppard, whose black-eyed peas and okra are the family’s best-selling items.

The Sheppard family nets $300 to $500 a week at the farmers market; Whitlow says his sales typically hit $700 to $800.

Webb estimates the market’s annual impact at more than $700,000 -- and that’s not even counting the extra money visitors spend on nearby downtown businesses. “Markets can be catalysts for change,” he says.

Webb also says markets help local communities respond to a growing demand for local produce grown naturally.

Vaughn Dufour, who joined the market last year, agrees and loves the ambience of the event, which he says reminds him of New Orleans. Dufour also predicts a growing future for the event.

“It’s a trend that’s been here for a while and that’s about to come into its own,” he says. “Buying stuff locally has become so important.”

Christine Hawes, Herald business writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7081.

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