Farmer Jeff Scott can remember many a long afternoon when he sat alone on the plaza at Dr. A.J. Chandler Park, offering his fresh-picked vegetables to a handful of regular customers and an occasional passerby. Solitude isn’t so much of a problem these days. The Willcox-area farmer’s bins of onions, squash and greens are the heaviest-hit attraction all night long at the Downtown Chandler Farmers Market.
Farmer Jeff Scott can remember many a long afternoon when he sat alone on the plaza at Dr. A.J. Chandler Park, offering his fresh-picked vegetables to a handful of regular customers and an occasional passerby.
Solitude isn’t so much of a problem these days.
The Willcox-area farmer’s bins of onions, squash and greens are the heaviest-hit attraction all night long at the Downtown Chandler Farmers Market, a lively, if yet small, smattering of vendors on Thursdays selling everything from herbal remedies and jewelry to key limes and jarred relish.
“It’s kind of the place to be on Thursday nights,” says spokeswoman Diane Webb. “It’s getting better as we’ve added vendors, and people are noticing. I get six or seven calls a day from people wanting to know about it.”
It’s not the only market that’s doing well. Across the Valley, more farmers markets are opening, and market organizers say they’re slowly but steadily growing, thanks to a shift in consumer food preferences and, surprisingly, to a down economy.
A new market opened Saturday in conjunction with downtown Mesa’s weekly MACFest, and three markets opened earlier this month in Tempe, Scottsdale and Glendale. Another opens Sunday on Mill Avenue in Tempe, and on Monday, Downtown Phoenix Public Market — the Valley’s largest and most robust farmers market — will open its Urban Grocery and Wine Bar. The indoor grocery store-wine bar-coffee house will stock locally grown produce and food products.
The demand, say market organizers and vendors, is part of a growing desire among consumers to know more about what’s in their food and where it comes from.
“That’s the first thing everyone wants to know: ‘Are you local?’ And then, ‘How is it made?’ or ‘What’s in it?’” says Beth Rouin, a Gilbert mom whose all-natural Doctor Hummus spreads, dips and pita chips are also sold at Whole Foods Market and AJ’s Fine Foods stores.
“There’s a lot more customer interaction than in years past,” agrees Denise Logan, senior coordinator with Arizona Community Farmers Markets Group, producer of eight farmers markets across the Valley. “The consumer is becoming much more of a force that’s shifting and shaping what’s happening in the markets. We’re seeing much more variety than we’ve had in the last several years, and I‘d say a huge portion of it is driven by consumer interest and awareness.”
Steve Skinner, a Chandler resident who was picking up loaves of bread, nut butters, barbecue sauce and produce at Chandler’s market, says the quality of food is generally better at farm stands.
“If it’s better than the stuff I get at the grocery store, I don’t really have a problem spending a little extra. And it usually is better. I mean, (Jeff Scott Farms) has stuff I haven’t seen in a grocery store in ages. He has Swiss chard over there. I used to grow that in my garden years ago,” he says.
That leaning toward more natural and sustainably farmed food is a trend seen nationwide in the green and local food movements.
“It’s becoming more mainstream to be concerned about where your food comes from, so more people are becoming interested in things like farmers markets,” says Pamela Hamilton, editor of Edible Phoenix, a magazine about the local-food community. “Some people are concerned about their health, some want to support the local economy. Some are interested in being environmentally responsible, and then there are people who, because of the economy, are cooking at home more, and so they’re looking for quality ingredients.”
All add up to reasons why, according to American Farmland Trust, the number of farmers markets is up more than 12-fold nationwide, from 340 in 1970 to more than 4,300 in 2006.
Logan says the trend hasn’t only brought more customers to her markets; it’s bringing more small-scale growers and vendors, even in an economy that’s been tough on sales.
Kim Moyers, an organizer for Queen Creek’s farmers market, and Monique Lightner, who runs eight Valley farmers and art markets, concur. Along with Webb and Logan, their phones are lighting up regularly with calls from potential vendors.
Six months ago, Ashley Dewey and Tiffany Latta, both 29, were making granola at home for high-energy breakfasts and snacks. Everyone who tasted it thought it was so good, the Chandler roommates decided to try selling their recipe at Valley farmers markets.
“You would think it’s the worst time to start a business,” says Latta, a Tempe firefighter, “but it’s totally taken off. At our first market, we thought we’d maybe sell a few packages, and we ended up selling nearly 30. A lot of people just seem to be banding together and supporting each other, supporting their neighbors. It‘s like everyone‘s got it rough, so people are just more willing to help out and maybe want to see their money stay a little closer to home.”
Glendale information technology worker Richard Borjeily and his wife Claudine have a similar story. Since Richard was laid off a few months ago, they decided to take a chance on family hummus and tahini recipes that have always garnered praise from friends.
“I’m not going to sit around waiting for an eighty or ninety-thousand-dollar-a-year job. It’s not going to happen. So we thought we’d try something we enjoy,” Borjeily says.
New businesses mean more variety for consumers, and that, says Logan, is important. “When they come to a farmers market, people want fresh produce above everything, and then bread and other edibles — salsas, jams, sauces.”
These days, depending on the market, they can get it. At Mesa Community Farmers Market, a longtime Friday-morning market that draws 400 to 700 shoppers in front of Mesa Centennial Hall, customers can buy eggs, Arizona-grown pumpkins, whole Marago coffee beans from a small, Mexican co-op based just across the border from Douglas, and goats-milk soaps and lotions. Items at markets across the Valley include salmon and tuna caught by Valley fishermen who spend half the year in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, grass-fed beef from small Arizona ranches, fresh-grown wheatgrass, butter, chocolate and pasta.
Scott, the Willcox-area farmer who anchors Chandler’s market, doubts the recession will add up to a passing boon for farmers markets.
“We’re in our 13th year (at the market), so that ought to tell you it’s been worthwhile to stay. We’ve just continued to get busier every year,” says Scott, who farms in conjunction with his father, John Scott, owner of One Windmill Farm in Queen Creek. “We take a lot of pride in seeing families grow. We’ve raised a lot of kids out there who are now coming back on their own.”