Farmer's Market a seedbed for germinating businesses

Offers a crash course for local startups each weekend

Former oceanographer and Navy vet Rick Wright is the owner of Sunbreak Nursery, a fern grower on Aldrich Road. He says the farmer’s market offers valuable lessons to startup businesses — and it gives him a chance to he meeting other people interested in his products.

Heidi Schiller
    “Can I help you with anything?” a flower vendor asks a woman in a raincoat.
   “Just enjoying your stuff,” the woman says.
   “You could enjoy it at home, too,” the vendor replies and the two women smile and begin discussing flowers.
   Despite the overcast Saturday, a surprising turnout mills around the Bellingham Farmer’s Market; the smell of freshly rained-on pavement mingles with salty kettle corn.
   Bellingham hosts the fourth-largest farmer’s market in the state, measured by total vendor income per season. Last year, its vendors grossed $901,000 over 31 Saturdays, market manager Robin Crowder said.
   Although the new Depot Market Square is three months behind schedule, it’s set for dedication July 8 and will stay open this season on Saturdays until December 23 — the longest season in its 14-year history, Crowder said.
   Vendors must apply to do business at the farmer’s market, and the craftsmen must go through a judging process, she said.
   So who sells at the farmer’s market and why?

Guadalupe Coffee Roaster
   Dana Hoffman’s husband and two children usually help her out at the farmer’s market, but on a recent Saturday she got a treat when her parents flew up from Georgia to check out — and help sell — the coffee she roasts at home and sells here.
   Earth-brown coffee bags with faded, red-stamped images of the Virgin of Guadalupe cluster together on her vendor’s table as she hands out steaming samples in small paper cups.

Vendor: Guadalupe’s Coffee Roaster
Owner: Dana Hoffman, Coffee Goddess
Length of time at farmer’s market: This is her first season.

    Why she likes doing business at the farmer’s market: “I love it so much. I can’t imagine doing it anywhere else,” she said. “Bellingham has the best farmer’s market I’ve been to,” and she’s been to about 20.
   Hoffman said she appreciates the friendly atmosphere between vendors.
   “We are all good buddies,” she said. “There is so much business brought into one space.”
   Other business outlets: Hoffman sells her coffee at both the Wednesday Fairhaven farmer’s market and the Saturday market, as well as through the Internet, and delivers to anyone in Whatcom County.
   What she sells: Organic and fair-trade coffee, mostly made from Central-and South-American beans.
   “I’ve always had a fascination with Mexico. I chose the Virgin of Guadalupe as my mascot because, especially being a fair-trade coffee roaster, she’s a kind of ‘power to the people’ icon,” Hoffman said.
   How she got started: “I’m a Washington native, so I’ve always had too much coffee in my system,” she said. Six years ago, Hoffman started roasting coffee for herself on the stove with a popcorn popper, and soon her friends and family started asking her to make it for them, too. The business grew from there.
   The challenges with doing this type of business: “Bad weather,” she said. “And setting up and taking down the whole business every week takes a certain level of streamlining you have to learn.”
   Initially, Hoffman brought her roaster and grinder to the market but now just takes customer’s orders and roasts at home.
   Her background: Hoffman grew up in Yakima and then took a circuitous route to Bellingham. After going to college in Spokane, then living in Idaho and Montana, she settled on Bellingham. “I thought, I’m going to pick where I want to live and then find a job,” she said.
   Favorite farmer’s market scenario or memory: Hoffman, her husband and her daughter all have the same birthday, so on the farmer’s market Saturday closest to that day, she brought a sheet cake from Costco and celebrated with all her market customers.
   “It’s always like a big party at the farmer’s market,” she said.

Red Boots Design
   Neatly ordered rows of brightly colored T-shirts with black silk-screened prints hang around J. Erin Boyd. She shivers in her vest and surveys the day’s crowd.

Vendor: Red Boots Design (named after the owner’s favorite pair of shoes)
Owner: J. Erin Boyd
Length of time at farmer’s market: This is her first season.

    Why she likes doing business at the farmer’s market: “People make a day of it and they’re more relaxed and having fun instead of the stress of going to the mall,” she said.
   Other business outlets: None.
   What she sells: T-shirts, slips and underwear with her original silk-screened designs. “No two are the same,” Boyd said. “I treat each as a different piece, and I press and pull all the ink myself.”
   Some of her designs include a print of a vintage Vista Cruiser bicycle, a two-toned heart with the phrase "my heart is your piñata" printed below it, and a stick figure of a pirate.
   “There’s something for everybody,” she said of her clothes for men, women, children and dogs.
   How she got started: Boyd took a screen-printing class and then began working at a friend’s studio where she traded work for use of his printing press. A year ago she began showing her clothing designs on gallery walks and at holiday fairs and sold her clothes at Passion Fly clothing store on James Street. Eventually, she decided to open shop at the farmer’s market.
   The challenges with doing this type of business: “Being outside with a bunch of clothes when it rains a lot,” she said. “It’s also hard to have the right color, size and design of everything, so I do a lot of special orders.”
   Her background: Boyd is originally from Nova Scotia. A few years ago she worked for an outdoor-education center on Vancouver Island and visited her uncle in Bellingham, and then decided to move here two years ago.
   Favorite farmer’s market scenario or memory: “One Saturday, it was really nice out and there were a lot of people here, and this kid from one of the farms brought a goat,” she said. “He was running all around with this goat — it was fun.”

Sunbreak Nursery
   Rick Wright looks like a hardy ship captain in a sea of ferns. After a woman asks him for advice on how to grow ferns, she decides to purchase some from him and he hoists a flat into her arms.

Vendor: Sunbreak Nursery Co.
Owner: Rick Wright
Length of time at farmer’s market: Two years

    Why he likes doing business at the farmer’s market: “It’s the feedback I get,” he said. “People are there to appreciate the project, unlike in a wholesale business where you’re just shoveling product onto the back of a truck and you don’t get to see the customer.”
   Other business outlets: Wright’s nursery on Aldrich Road sells ferns and groundcover to about 200 garden centers around Puget Sound as well as to landscapers around Whatcom County.
   What he sells: “We’re a niche nursery,” Wright said. “We grow a lot of unusual products that aren’t the mainstream — 150 kinds of groundcovers and 25 different kinds of ferns.”
   How he got started: “It’s one of those Bellingham stories,” he said. “I moved here in 1978 and wound up with a backyard nursery, and it grew from there.”
   The challenges with doing this type of business: Wright said he doesn’t think the farmer’s market is an ideal venue for the foliage products he grows, but thinks of the experience as more of a marketing strategy.
   “People typically go to the farmer’s market to buy flowers,” he said. “It’s tough to get the public to understand that early in spring, there aren’t a lot of fresh fruit and veggies to buy, so they should be coming to buy plants.”
   His background: Originally from the East Coast, Wright received a bachelor’s degree in oceanography from Cornell University and spent 10 years working for the Navy. After he married and had kids, he decided to quit his Navy job and move to Bellingham.
   Favorite farmer’s market scenario or memory: “There’s a lot of interesting characters at the farmer’s market, it’s a total potpourri of people,” he said. “My favorite thing is to people watch. Being a farmer, in general, you tend to be a little bit socially isolated and then you’re thrown into this seething mass of humanity — I find it pretty stimulating, actually.”
   Wright said he thinks of the Saturday market as an incubator for small businesses.
   “It’s a good place for business owners to learn about their products, selling, pricing merchandising. It’s a lesson in business you can’t get in any college,” he said. “I don’t see anybody getting rich at the farmer’s market, but it’s a great opportunity to learn.”


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