The Market, all grown up

Market sales hit $1 million last year, awarded top business by visitors bureau

Bellingham’s Farmers Market hit $1 million in sales last year and was awarded Business of the Year by the visitors bureau. After more than doubling in size in the last 10 years, these market growers (from left) Mike Finger, Sheila Wollberg, Kim Brooke, Teresa Remple and Tom Burton are feeling the growing pains.

 

Everywhere, pre-Fourth of July explosions of greetings burst around the Saturday market grounds.

Adults meander through stalls brimming with salad greens and carrot bunches until they smack into a long-lost friend or a lunch date, exclaiming their hellos. Near the intersection of Railroad and East Maple a band plays a set in front of wriggling children in sundresses and dads in baseball caps.

“We always joke that we just put on a really good show, with music, food and friends,” said Bellingham Farmers Market Manager Robin Crowder. “We’re like a really good party.”

It’s the same site where the Bellingham Farmers Market was born 15 years ago, with the help of a handful of farmers, fish brokers, a baker and a couple of crafters. Since then, the market has grown considerably as a result of an increased marketing campaign and a national trend in growth of organic and local food sold at farmers markets.

Since 2004, the rate of yearly gross vendor sales has increased by upwards of 20 percent each year. Last year, sales hit $1 million, and the market saw the highest number of membership with 145 vendors.

This growth also reflects a nationwide trend. The number of farmers markets in the United States has grown by almost 150 percent since 1994, from 1,755 to 4,385 in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

All in all, it amounts to booming times at the market.

 

In the beginning

Fits and starts of farmers markets had percolated in Bellingham since the 1970s, but for 20 years, none were successful. It wasn’t until 1992 that a couple of Western Washington University students and a retired community member, Dell Lowery, began to assemble what would become today’s market.

The three organized a group of board members to oversee the corporation, and with help from the city, held the first Saturday market in 1993 in the parking lot on Railroad Avenue, back when the Washington Grocery Building had yet to be refurbished and no one had ever heard of La Fiamma, Boundary Bay, or the Morse Square Condominiums.

Mike Finger remembers starting off with a bang.

Sixty vendors under pop-up canopies — farmers, fishermen, crafters and food stalls — participated, and raked in $288,888 in gross sales the first year. The next year — 1994 — vendors broke half a million in sales.

“Which was pretty respectable for farmers markets in the state at the time,” said Finger, who was the first — and is also the current — board president, and has been a vendor through all 15 market seasons with his Cedarville Farm stand. “It wasn’t really night and day comparing then to now.”

Kim Brooke remembers it in a slightly different manner.

“It was very rustic back then,” she said.

The vendors arrived at 6 a.m. to haul cement blocks and canopies out of the Grocery Building, where they were stored, and set up their stands.

Making a living as an artist in Bellingham was tough back then, said Brooke, who owns North Star Wool Design. For Brooke, the first few years of the market were financially unstable, even when supplemented by vending at other fairs and festivals, she said.

Still, gross vendor sales rose steadily the first three years of the market. Then they stagnated and declined between 1996 and 2001, and weren’t even buoyed by the addition of the Fairhaven Wednesday Farmers Market during the time.

Tom Burton, owner of Tom’s Bamboo, remembers the time as a period of low active vendor membership and lethargic crowds, as well as a general feeling that the market had become an “alternative lifestyle expo.”

When Burton took the reins as board president in 2000, he spearheaded a movement to revitalize the market. He and the rest of the board realized they needed to address a larger market, he said, and hired a new market manager.

The vendors needed a paradigm shift, he said, from thinking “we’re so cool so people should come here and shop,” to “what can we do to get people to come here and shop?”

 

A new phase of growth

Enter Crowder, the new market manager with a background in strategic marketing and advertising who Burton described as “an includer, not an excluder.”

Beginning in 2002, Crowder and a marketing and advertising committee began a marketing campaign that involved surveying customers to find out their demographic characteristics as well as how they’d heard of the market and what could be improved.

The surveys showed the market’s target demographic were women aged 35 and older, who had stable jobs and a family, and who tended to make the family’s purchasing and leisure-time decisions.

Crowder and the committee created a new logo and began advertising in publications targeting this demographic with a redemption coupon for free market goods. By advertising the coupons in a variety of publications, each having a different code, they allowed Crowder to track which publications the most customers read, and also created a contact database when each customer provided their information upon redemption.

Crowder said she still made sure to reach out to potential new customers outside of the target demographic and retain old regulars as well. She also hosted merchandising workshops for vendors.

Teresa Remple, owner of Texture Clothing, said Crowder’s workshops helped her stage her booth so it was more colorful and comfortable for customers, and helped her optimize the placement and layout of her booth’s sustainably and locally made hemp and cotton clothing.

“I don’t even like to think about what my booth looked like back when I started,” she said.

After planting the seeds, Crowder and the vendors began to watch the market grow, while continuing the strategic marketing effort to this day. In 2002, sales hit the half million mark again — the first time since 1995 — and grew steadily from there. In 2004, sales grossed $743,217, a 23 percent increase from the previous year, and sales have increased by upwards of 20 percent every year since.

Most agree the marketing efforts directly affected this rate of increase.

“The last five years of growth has been especially brisk,” Finger said. “The market is more professional in its operations and appearance, and all the advertising and marketing … Robin has had a huge role in that.”

The marketing has also gone hand-in-hand with the growth of Bellingham’s population and the revitalization of its downtown core, as well as a strong Buy Local campaign sponsored by Sustainable Connections.

“There are more people living and coming downtown,” Finger said. “They find the market and like the idea of produce from just a few miles away.”

Last year the market operated for the first time out of its newly built Depot Market Square facility, funded by the city and state and private donors, which gave the market a new sense of permanence.

Because of this, Finger said vendors are seeing increasing amounts of new customers who may have been more accustomed to shopping at malls or other retail outlets, but are becoming more comfortable at the market now.

 

Other trends

Finger and many others also attribute the market growth to a national trend toward buying local, organic food, which has coincided with the growth in farmers markets.

“A whole other phenomenon is a national, if not global, concern with food quality, environmental quality, and a movement toward buying local,” he said

According to the USDA, organic food represents one the fastest growing food industry sectors in the United States, and the number and popularity of farmers markets has grown concurrently.

The market has also been attributed as a top visitor destination, and was recently awarded the 2007 tourism business of the year award by Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.

While Crowder said most of the market’s vendors are local — about 90 percent, she estimated — the amount of tourists visiting the market has steadily increased, in part because of referrals from the visitors’ bureau.

“Our slogan is ‘fresh, local, lively,’ and that is what tourists like about it. They come and see what Bellingham is all about,” she said. “They can see and do a lot of things at the market, not just shop.”

Live music and performing acts, political booths with the latest voter-initiative drives, and new local faces, in addition to produce, crafts and lunch — tourists get the whole Bellingham shebang.

Crowder remembered when the market opened for the season just after 9/11. Friends gathered, produce was harvested and there was a collective sense of relief to be in that community space again after the previous September’s tragedy. It’s this type of community gathering place that draws locals and tourists alike.

The farmers market now has more members than ever before and more customers who are spending more money, but most agree that despite the growth, its place as the heart of downtown, where friends congregate and meet their local food producers, continues on.

Most will agree the downtown hub, with its spokes stretching out to the farms and artist studios of Whatcom and Skagit counties, seems to be on a forward course far into the foreseeable future.

Related Stories