The newly formed Boca Grande Farmers Market, located on the remote barrier island of Gasparilla Island in Southwest Florida, is just shy of completing its first full month of groundbreaking operations. Welcomed and embraced by the local community at large, the market is enjoying a resident and tourist resurgence of interest in farm-to-table and farm-to-fork food advocacy. With over 40 food and small business vendors appearing each week on “Farmers Market Friday,” organizers are attracting those interested in organic whole foods and other farmer produced items in the coastal community open-air event.
The successes have come with assorted challenges for the historic startup. For each week of operation, vendors have been presented with new footprint maps for booth locations and setup. “Starting a new market is challenging when you are unable to permanently mark spots and when the initial sifting and sorting of committed vendors is taking place,” said market founder Shauna Lee Lange.
“One wants to demonstrate stability and trust, and that kind of reliability is often only reached with maturity and age of a market. Absent a very firm belief that you can withstand the tidal ebbs and flows of change and challenge, a newly established market can have a difficult time growing roots.” Lange has no easy road ahead of her. In addition to her isolated location, she has parking issues (common to the unincorporated village), and she faces outdated ordinances restricting signage, originally designed to ensure conservation. “We plan to rely on the tried and true methods of word-of-mouth because we know that inevitably, a market’s foundation is built on the quality of and investment in interpersonal relationships. We know our product and our people will self-promote.”
Lange’s progress in the food desert, despite these initial obstacles, has been remarkable. The Market is now allied with the National Farmers Market Coalition and the Florida Department of Agriculture, with forthcoming plans to support Florida Organic Growers and American Farmland Trust. Already, several island chefs have expressed interest in working with the farmers on a larger scale. In supporting the establishment of a new food culture on island, a food product of frozen popsicles was gifted to attendees last week. Plans are in place for a Halloween celebration at the end of the month, including a costume contest for vendors and participants. And the invitation for the community to participate on a larger scale has already been taken up by a local “celebrity” who brought his family’s island-grown produce to market to share the wonders of foods like the miracle fruit. New this week, the Boca Grande Historical Society will also take up market residence to celebrate their 20th year of service and education.
Programs like these contribute to Lange’s larger vision for the people’s health and food security. Future projects she hopes to manifest on island include: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA); self-sustainability through edible lawns and community gardens; forming alliances for seed resources and sourcing alternatives like food co-ops and food hubs; and the establishment of a stronger food collaborative oriented to the culture tourism model to showcase the variety of talent and cuisine available. For example, under the guidance of an international chef, Lange is presently working on a pilot project to offer exclusive theme-based dinners (based on green market produce) as entertainment and exploration under the stars. To accomplish these feats, she is actively participating in the larger food-based network in Florida and next month will attend at least two agricultural conferences to grow the vision.
The Boca Grande Farmers Market is truly a community market because it takes a village to build one, to embrace it, and to grow it. Lange likes to say that everyone has a place and there is a place for everyone. She cites Lee County UF/IFAS; Lee County Parks & Recreation Division; Boca Beacon; Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce; and selfless volunteers as critical partnerships. With a discerning eye to towards quality, personality, and customer service, she also credits the participating vendors for their entrepreneurial spirits. “You simply must come by to experience what we have to offer,” she said. As Boca Grande ramps up for the 2014/2015 season, we are confident November will see the market and the islanders through to new heights.
The Boca Grande Farmers Market runs weekly on Fridays from Oct 3, 2014 – April 24, 2015 at 305 Wheeler Road Ball Field on Boca Grande, FL from 9:30a – 1:30p. Market Management may be reached at 941.875.5190.