Friday, January 13, 2012

Over two years of green Saturdays

We all wear different hats at different times. In my case, in addition to the 'sombreros' I get to wear as gardener and small organic grower, there's a third option in my hat rack: I manage the Alliance for the Arts' GreenMarket on Saturday mornings.

A bit of history: the GreenMarket started in 2009, with a mission to support local growers

and bring the highest quality foodstuffs to the

public. Founding members included an extraordinary Swiss lady with a passion for fine cheeses and preserves, Caroline Hostettler; the late Sally Maitland, progressive activist and part owner of Andy's Island Seafood in Matlacha; Lydia Black, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Arts; and organic farmer Ken Ryan, who briefly served as Market Master before passing the torch to me in September 2009.

The GreenMarket has been, and is, an adventure, an experiment, a way to try and put the beliefs and convictions of a bunch of people into practice: to try and do something, however insignificant, to make the place we live in more sustainable now, not in some future utopia, but right here, right now.

There's been highs and lows. At times, the

community showed amazing support, shopping for locally grown, for environmentally friendly, products and services. Other days, it seemed that everybody was at the big supermarkets and had forgotten about us. We fought like crazy to survive and to establish a green toehold in our community. We organized recycling drives and blood drives. We brought musicians and artists to perform for visitors. We put together free gardening classes, open to the public, by some brilliant growers and educators, like Andrea Guerrero and Ben Pino of Heartland Gardens, Kara Alfaro of Elata Natives, Frank Oakes of Food and Thought, Debbie Hughes and Todd Roy of the Edison Estates Gardens, Unruly Gardener Millisa Bell of the Holton Eco Preserve, and more. Above all, we had to make sure the GreenMarket would have a good selection of local food, consistently, every week. We never tried to be a big market, and are quite comfortable with our current size of about 20 to 30 vendors, but we had to make sure the quality was there.

The GreenMarket operates on a cooperative basis, and big decisions are made by all. An example: during our first year, we had to decide whether to remain open during the summer, or not. A majority voted yes. The summer season presents many challenges in our part of the world: there's much less locally grown produce, so we decided to allow our big local grower, Brittain Farms, to bring produce grown in South Carolina in addition to their Alva production. We had to reach a compromise there, because customers really, really want their tomatoes, summer and winter. Our citrus vendor, Sunrise Farms, is of course not present during summers, so we tried to focus on tropical fruit, some of it very unusual - mangoes, lychees, tamarind and such.

Another drawback of the summer season is that there's much less visitors, as a significant part of the county's population is seasonal, only here for the winter - we call them 'snowbirds', and they take their business elsewhere in the hot months. So we focused on the locals, by offering added attractions besides the shopping: music, art, kids' activities. Some wonderful chef friends started doing live 'cooking with local ingredients' demos, taking advantage of the fact that they have a bit more time to spare in the summer: Heath Higginbotham and Reiner Drygala of Bistro 41, and Eric Truglas of Lush French Bakery. When the weather became too brutally hot, we moved under the shade of the old trees in the Alliance's campus.

Now in our third year, we have reached a balance, and cater to a core group of supporters that shop with us consistently. We have become a bit of a social hub, too, where like-minded people come to meet each other, enjoy the music and the cooking, surf the free wi-fi, walk the dogs. We have a steady lineup of vendors that cover the range of locally grown food: a part-commercial, part-organic produce farm; a USDA Certified organic-only farm; a seasonal citrus farm; organic sprouts and herbs; honey; seafood; breads and other baked goods; and preserves.

This main group of vendors is complemented by a wide range of others, some of which are permanent, and some seasonal or depending on availability. Everything from soaps and essential oils to plants and gardening supplies to arts & crafts is represented, and let's not forget one of a kind items like quails and quail eggs, hydroponic lettuces, or heirloom, open-pollinated veggie seedlings.

Our friends in the media deserve a special thank you, because over the years they supported our little outfit so much, giving us a voice, allowing us to survive without a real advertising budget by informing the public of who we are and what we do, as in this, this, or this story, and many more...

To me, the GreenMarket has been, and continues to be, a wonderful experience, another environment where I can put together work and idealism, an arena to battle for a greener, more sustainable SW FL, having a lot of fun in the process, meeting old and new friends every Saturday, learning from farmers and gardeners and artisans, sampling delicious food and getting to know the history and the lore of the place.