In its seventh season, the Mainstreet Farmers Market has set new records in sales for farmers and other vendors, despite still having no roof over shoppers' heads on rainy days.
Even before last Saturday wrapped up this season's traditional Saturday morning market in the Sea Island Bank parking lot, vendors had grossed $227,874 in sales, a 15 percent increase over the 2013 Saturday market season.
Shopping by Lantern Light, scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, will put a bow on the in-person, outdoor markets for 2014. The season added, for the first time, Tuesday evening farm markets at a different location, while market days on the Georgia Southern University campus continued spring and fall.
"You know, if this market were just a trend or a fad, I think it would have already gone away, but we're going into the eighth year, we've shown we're viable and we've been good stewards of what little resources we've been given, and I think the Farmers Market has really proven that we're a good investment for our community," said Debra Chester, the volunteer who chairs the Mainstreet Market.
Numbers that Chester provided in consultation with Paula Freeman, the market's bookkeeper and manager of its year-round, online Market2Go, show that total annual attendance through the 33 market Saturdays continued to hover around the 35,000 mark.
The count this season was 34,798 visits, for an average of 1,054 shoppers at each Saturday market. Last year's total was roughly 34,000 visits, but 2012's attendance topped 35,700. Saturday markets are held the first week of April through the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
This year, the market added a series of 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesday markets, held in cooperation with the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department at its Fair Road Park from May until September. These drew, at most, about a dozen vendors, compared to 30-38 for at the Saturday markets. The Tuesday markets averaged only 93 shoppers each, for a total attendance of 1,485 and vendor sales, separate from the Saturday figure, of $12,082.
Tuesday attendance waned in late summer. But produce farmers do want another market day in addition to Saturday for their peak harvest, which was one reason for attempting the Tuesday markets, Chester said. Another was to catch commuters who work in Statesboro but may not return on Saturdays.
"Next year we would like to try a midweek market and we're not definite about the location," she said. "We need to be where the people are."
One place the market has gone to find Georgia Southern faculty, staff and students is on campus. Six market days were held in the Williams Center Plaza fall semester and six more are planned for the spring. The campus markets are held with the University Wellness Program's cooperation.
University folk are also well-represented at the Saturday markets, as are health care professionals. Family Health Care Center physician Dr. Thad Riley, a regular customer, was doing some vegetable shopping Saturday and advises eating fresh produce as often as possible.
While the vendors welcome the educated foodies and many qualify as such themselves, some of the farmers say they would like to see more of a cross-section of the community.
"We'd really love to be able to, you know, expand more," said Bailey Lee of Lee Family Farms near Statesboro. She reached across heaps of fresh cabbages, collards, broccoli and other greens to trade them for cash with customers Saturday.
"A regular observer can tell that there's a certain class at the market for the most part, and so we'd really like to see it expand in other ways to be able to be feeding all of Bulloch County," Lee said.
One way the market has attempted to reach less affluent people is with Wholesome Wave Georgia. The program doubles Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, dollars spent on fresh produce at farmers markets, so that each $1 from SNAP buys $2 worth, up to a limit. SNAP is the program popularly known as food stamps, although it now provides assistance for family food purchases through a benefits card.
Wholesome Wave's grant provides 40 percent of the added purchasing power, so the Mainstreet Market lines up sponsorships to cover the remaining cost. With more than 20 percent of the area population receiving SNAP benefits, this is an important outreach, Chester said.
Electronic benefit card sales during the 2014 season, prior to Saturday, totaled $10,511.
Rain again affected some market Saturdays. Last year, Shopping by Lantern Light was postponed due to heavy rain, and weather reports indicate rain is likely again this evening.
That the Mainstreet Farmers Market should have a home of its own has been a topic of discussion for several years. One advantage of having a roof is obvious, Chester noted, but she suggested another.
"If farmers knew that there was a place they could go maybe two or three times during the week during peak season, it would be a boon not only for the farmers but for the local economy in general," she said.
As of Monday, Shopping by Lantern Light was on schedule for Tuesday evening, with about 45 vendors of food and handmade gift items expected. Added attractions include chili and brats cooked by the Fresh Market Grille, Hunter Cattle's burgers, foods prepared on the Big Green Egg, Jamaican recipes from Caribbean Feast, the market's own Sweet Potato Bar, coffee, cider and hot chocolate.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.