Rain may have turned some people away from Mainstreet Farmers Market this year, but those who shopped on the market's 34 regular-season Saturdays spent more on fresh produce and other items than ever before.
Despite the weather's impact, punctuated by the postponement of Shopping by Lantern Light, the market's sixth regular season grossed sales of $197,200. That's up from the previous record of $194,521 during 33 market Saturdays in 2012. However, last year's attendance count topped 35,700 visits. This year's turnout hovered around 1,000 people each Saturday on average, or roughly 34,000 visits overall, reported Mainstreet Market chairperson Debra Chester.
She sees a deepening trend toward people using the market as a primary food source instead of just an enjoyable outing.
"They're not just, you know, picking up a tomato here or a pint of strawberries there," Chester said. "They're actually investing in their groceries. They're using the market as an option, or an alternative, to the grocery store."
Creating that kind of commitment has been part of the market's mission all along. The Statesboro Mainstreet Farmers Market encourages people to "see what's local, what's fresh, what's seasonal," Chester said.
"If you don't find what you really want, then go to the grocery store," she said. "Let us work together to feed you, the corporate grocery store and the market."
If she needed further evidence of the commitment some consumers feel, she received it as a result of the market committee's reluctant decision to postpone Shopping by Lantern Light. Also in its sixth season, Shopping by Lantern Light caps the market's year with special holiday-themed vendors, in addition to many from the regular season, traditionally on the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving.
Lantern Light rescheduled
But this year that Tuesday fell on one of the rainiest days of autumn. So Shopping by Lantern Light has been rescheduled for 6-8 p.m. this Friday, when it will coincide with the December F1RST Friday Downtown Holiday Celebration.
"I got so many calls and texts and emails from people who just couldn't believe that we weren't going to be there even though the weather was horrible," Chester said.
As she explained, many had planned their Thanksgiving menus around foods that they would have bought at the market. "You know - the greens and the sweet potatoes and the fresh-baked pies and the squash, all of the good things we like, even some of the meats and the eggnog," Chester said.
More than 60 vendors had signed up for Shopping by Lantern Light, and she still expects about 60. Regular-season Saturday markets this year typically drew 38-40 vendors, including usually 22 farmers with local or regional produce, meat, honey and eggs. The remainder sell baked goods or craft items made with, as Chester explains, "something from the local environment."
With an eye toward fresh and local, a committee vets what items may be sold, both at Shopping by Lantern Light and during the regular season.
Special vendors coming just for Shopping by Lantern Light include Wade Plantation Pecans, the Screven County-based international shipper of products ranging from raw pecans to gourmet pecan oil; State Sen. Tommie Williams with olive oil from Toombs County-grown olives; and Nuts & Bolls Clothing, recently featured on the Business Tuesday page.
Trey McAlhany will prepare barbecue in Big Green Egg smokers. Hunter Cattle Co. will grill hamburgers from Bulloch County-raised beef. Chester and her daughter Olivia will set out a sweet potato bar with toppings such as locally grown honey and butter for local sweet potatoes.
Four authors are scheduled to appear with locally grown books for sale: Janisse Ray, author of "The Seed Underground" and "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood;" Kathy Bradley, with her book, "Breathing and Walking Around;" Tina Whittle, author of the Tai Randolph mystery series; and Brenda Shumate with "A Day without God."
After Lantern Light, the Mainstreet Market, as such, will fold its tents until spring, but its affiliated Market2Go, with online orders and deliveries to two pickup points each Thursday, continues year-round. See http://statesboromarket2go.locallygrown.net for information.
Hopes for a facility
When the open-air market returns in April, it will probably be in the same location as this and previous years, the parking lot whose use is donated by Sea Island Bank. But the Lantern Light rain delay - as well as the determined response to Saturday markets - point to hopes for a dedicated facility, which Chester and other farm market supporters have been expressing for years.
"This is why we need a facility!" Chester said in an email last week. "We need to be able to offer fresh foods throughout the week, and if we had a facility we could do that by having at least two, maybe three markets a week."
A covered pavilion would offer some protection from the weather. It would also eliminate the need for vendors to set up their own tents every market day, she points out. Tables or stalls, electrical and water connections are other possible features she mentions.
Most discussions have centered on a multipurpose facility, not just one for the farmers market, said Allen Muldrew, executive director of the Downtown Statesboro Development Authority. The DSDA oversees the Mainstreet Market's finances, and both are backed by the city.
Entertainment and arts events and other public gatherings, as well as the market, could be held in such a facility, Muldrew said.
"There are some really attractive spots in the downtown area that could still be used for that, but at this point we just haven't been able to put the funds together for something like that. ..." he said. "Do we have a place at this moment? No. But we're hoping that something sooner rather than later will open up that we can take advantage of."