COLUMBIA — Vendors and customers flocked to the Columbia Farmers' Market for its annual spring opening Saturday morning. It was one of the largest openings the market has seen in its 29 years.
About 30 vendors gathered to sell their products, including spinach, mushrooms, meats, honey, baked goods and chocolate. About 1,200 people showed up to shop for the fresh produce, meat and special treats.
First-time vendor Alan McClure, owner of Patric Chocolate, explained the origins of his artisan chocolate to customers. McClure will be selling at the market for the rest of the season. He said he enjoyed the direct one-on-one relationship with customers provided by the market because this is the closest he gets to having a retail store.
Carole Riesenberg, who has been going to the market for 10 years, said she originally started going for, "the wonderful produce and the opportunity to buy grass-fed beef, pork and free-range chicken and trout."
"I want to support the wonderful farmers who work so hard to provide for the rest of us," Riesenberg said. She left the market with an armful of goods including spinach, rhubarb pie, blackberry jam, pussy willows and flank steak.
Heather Willman of Sunrise Shiitake Farm has committed to being at the market every week this year. Last year, she sold her mushrooms at the market only every so often because most of her produce went to local restaurants such as Sycamore, Berlin Cafe, and Wine Cellar and Bistro. This year, both she and her husband have decided to work full time on their mushrooms. The couple used to have a greenhouse but now grow mushrooms in their basement.
"It's been non-stop people all through this morning," said Willman, who usually sells out of mushrooms by 10:30 or 11 a.m.
Eager customers anxious for a taste of spring bought up Phil's Garden spinach quickly. The spinach was planted last fall and put under a heated row cover in February. Phillip Stewart, owner of Phil's Garden, said he sells about 30 recognized items throughout the season and "if it can be grown, I've got most of it." Stewart has been a vendor at the market for 12 years and said the market serves as an outlet for his goods.
"I'm a grower," Stewart said. "If you're a grower, you gotta be a seller." He added that he enjoys the social aspect the most.
Many patrons frequent the market to support local farms and small businesses.
"We come every week that we can," said Zac Early, who was out shopping with his family. "Locally grown food is important to us; we buy as much locally as we can. In the long run, it's more economical."
In addition to local produce, Early was also looking for starter plants to help with a community garden he is involved with.
After selling at the market for four years, Merrit Van Landuyt of Troutdale Farm knows all of her regular customers' quirks and gets to know what size trout they prefer.
"I get real excited when people who have never eaten fresh trout try it," Van Landuyt said. "At that point, they become a more committed buyer to the product and become more discriminating. And more likely to buy locally and fresh. Those are values my farm and all farms here try to promote. It's better for the consumer, better for the farmer and for the economy."
The farmers market is trying to raise funds for a permanent pavilion structure. Sustainable Farms and Communities,
the nonprofit group overseeing the pavilion project, hired Casey
Corbin as their first full-time employee in December. So far the group
has raised about $200,000. Currently, they are waiting to hear if
they are going to receive federal stimulus funds of about $2.6 million.
Corbin said that if stimulus money goes through, the pavilion could be
open next summer. If not, it could be another year or two. He expects to hear
back about the stimulus funds by mid-May.
The Columbia Farmers' Market will be open 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays until November and from 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays beginning in May.
Starting April 4, the Boone County Farmers Market, 1005 W. Worley St., will be open 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays. The market will be open 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays beginning in May.