Whatcom’s open markets

Veggies just a few miles from the farm


photo by Jesse Amorratanasuchad

John Sheehan, owner of the Sundance Market in Custer, sifts through apples with his daughter, Lyndee. The store is one of several open-air markets that spring forth during Whatcom’s sunny summers.


The high-noon sun shines down on an array of colors on the corner of James and Carolina streets. Youngstock’s Country Farms sits on a small patch of dirt and hay on a busy Bellingham arterial. A few employees bustle in shaded aisles of seasonal fruits and vegetables from red, ripe strawberries to local, fresh, green asparagus. Joe Chartier said business always gets better when the weather gets brighter.

“We know each piece of product and that’s what we pride ourselves in,” Joe said. “We want to teach customers how to pick the best pieces out.”

Youngstock’s, the Sundance Market in Custer, and the Ferndale Farmer’s Market are three examples of open markets in Whatcom County. Each relies heavily on a “buy local” emphasis for their business. These local markets have provided an outlet for vendors all over Whatcom County to sell their goods and also provide quality produce at a good price.

The Sundance Market has recently come under new management, while the Ferndale market is going into its second season in the area. Youngstock’s has been a family-run business in Bellingham for the past 38 years.


Youngstock’s Country Farms: Born into the business

John Chartier, Jr. started Youngstock’s 38 years ago as a produce stand consisting of three picnic tables. His two sons, Joe and John III, were raised in banana boxes as their mother helped work to keep the business afloat. Joe and John III were recently handed the reins to Youngstock’s after their father made the decision to retire and move back to a 5-acre property in Skagit County.

“[Our dad] put a lot of his life into this, a lot of hard work and sacrifice,” Joe said. “It makes me happy to see the customers who have seen me grow up and keep coming here. It gives me a great satisfaction to take over the business and keep it going.”

Joe and John III started boxing apples for their parents at the market before they were 10 years old, Joe said. The upkeep of a produce market takes a lot of hard work, added John, but since they have been involved with the process for so long, the only logical next step was to take the management positions once their father retired from the business.

Both John III and Joe are at Youngstock’s from early in the morning until the sun goes down each evening. Because the market has been in the same location for so long, Joe said they see multiple generations of the same families coming back for more of Youngstock’s products and service. Customer satisfaction and interactions make the Chartier brothers’ jobs as managers enjoyable, day in and day out.

“It means a lot to this community to have an old time, mom-and-pop produce stand still running after this long,” Joe said. “This place is something unique, something to see and experience if you are in Bellingham. It’s not uncommon for us to see people snapping pictures left and right throughout the day.”


The Sundance Market: Creating synergy in Custer

While Youngstock’s has been able to maintain consistent business from a wide range of local customers, The Sundance Market is in a large period of transition.

John Sheehan took over management of the Birch Bay Farmer’s Market, located in Custer on Birch Bay Lynden Road,from Terry Smith in the winter of 2008. Sheehan, the owner of Sundance Beef Co., renamed the market to The Sundance Market, which created a closer association with the quality meats he has produced for over 15 years. Smith still remains involved with the market to a smaller degree and Sheehan is now responsible for much of the management.

Last season, the market was simply a small vegetable stand on a sawdust lot, Sheehan said. Over the winter Sheehan paved the lot, however, which has created easier access for visitors. Boxes of apples, oranges and bananas line the doors to a large pole building that houses fruits and vegetables grown within miles of the market. “Buy local” has been a major aspect of the market, and Sundance’s list of suppliers includes Boxx Berry Farm, Breckenridge Dairy, Appel Farms and Pleasant Valley Farms.

“We want [the market] to be an experience,” Sheehan said. “Locally grown, wholesome produce that’s naturally raised. It’s the community supporting the community as well as the local business owners.”

Because open markets in Whatcom County are dependent on good weather, the market season starts much later than in other parts of the country, Sheehan said. Most markets in this area open in early to mid-April and close as the temperature begins to drop in November.

“In the middle of December, where are you going to buy fresh produce from Whatcom County?” Sheehan said. “You can’t do it. It’s not happening.”

Competition for the Custer market comes from corporate grocers throughout the area. Individually, local businesses have a hard time competing, especially during the winter when local produce is unavailable.

“We go the extra mile,” Sheehan said. “We’re open until the last customer is gone. People come back here because we love what we do and know what we’re doing.”

Sundance Market has given local farmers an outlet to sell their products at a reasonable price and has provided a vehicle for multiple businesses to succeed. Because they are competing against year-round grocery stores, Sheehan said he is always trying to find new market niches in order to keep Sundance moving forward.

“If you’re static in this business, you’re moving backwards, because everyone is always improving,” Sheehan said. “You have to be vertically integrated and be able to react quickly to market changes and opportunities.”


The Ferndale Farmer’s Market: A cohesive community

The Ferndale Farmer’s Market is the brainchild of Kirk Hayes, who manages the market and is also the owner of DEVine Gardens and Grill, a produce supplier and restaurant in the Ferndale area. In 2008, nearly 75 vendors from around Whatcom County were in the market’s rotation that began on the first Saturday of April. After two months into this season there are approximately 45 vendors involved, Hayes said.

Hayes has been the main drive behind the market, and last year he went to the Ferndale City Council to get permission to use Centennial Riverwalk Park as the market’s venue. In order to promote growth, the market is offered with no fee to vendors interested in participating, Hayes said.

“This is a community event area,” Hayes said. “Rather than just having sales, we also bring in community organizations to tell what they are doing throughout the year. This is a great place for the Ferndale community to come together every week and find out exactly what’s happening downtown and around the city.”

The farmer’s market has given downtown Ferndale an added boost in business during the weekend, Hayes said. Businesses in the area noticed a 15 percent increase in sales on Saturdays when the market was open.

“I market my business as much as I market community,” Hayes said. “I grew up in Ferndale and I’ve watched Ferndale settle into this old town. It needed help. This is ‘Farmer’s Market 101.’ We teach people how to market their product to a customer and help them grow.”

The market opened for its second season in mid-April and has enabled downtown Ferndale to attract more foot traffic during the weekend, said Carol Boswell, president of the market’s board of directors. Boswell and her husband, Les, own Camelot Ranch Alpacas in Ferndale, and last season, they put on an alpaca shearing demonstration during one of the Saturday markets.

“From the very beginning, there was an abundant support for the market,” Boswell said. “Farmers, ranchers and artisans all lent their time and talents to make whatever Kirk needed to help make the market a success.”

Boswell said the Ferndale community is thrilled with having the market located downtown along the Centennial Riverwalk Park, in their own backyard. The Nooksack River runs adjacent to the row of vendors, while a meticulously landscaped park lends itself to pleasant afternoon strolling through the park.

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