Meet and greet
Shoppers from as far away as Palm Beach and Okeechobee counties visit the Fort Pierce Farmers’ Market along the Indian River every Saturday, rain or shine. RUSTY HUSTON PHOTO
Farmers’ Market celebrates 20 years, still the place to be on a Saturday morning
BY JERRY SHAW
Fresh produce, seafood, plants, delicacies — along with friendship and entertainment — have all become essential ingredients of a joyous ritual every Saturday morning, thanks to the Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers’ Market, which has significantly contributed to the area’s growth during the past two decades.
It now plays a pivotal role in upholding the city’s commerce, history and charm.
The market has grown into a cherished tradition for thousands of Treasure Coast residents and visitors, board member Kia Fontaine points out.
“The Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers’ Market also greatly promotes healthy shopping choices, community access to local agricultural products and fresh foods, and the economic development of small businesses, agricultural businesses, and Fort Pierce’s downtown businesses,” she comments.
That tradition celebrated its 20th anniversary on Jan. 28.
One of the reasons for the market’s success is, “like real estate, location, location, location,” notes Dan Cushman, the chairman of the board for the market. “It’s downtown on the water on Melody Lane. People like to see the boats, kids like seeing the mullet and catfish.”
The market’s popularity can be measured by the parking situation some patrons face, though that’s not really a problem.
“So many people can’t find a close place to park,” Cushman says. “I was mentioning that to a board member and was told, ‘Dan, this is not a parking problem; this is a parking bonanza. There was nobody here years ago.’ That’s a good way to look at it.”
The city trolley can even pick up visitors at the parking garage near U.S. 1 to bring them straight to the riverfront market.
The market is not only something to do on a Saturday morning for many visitors, but it’s also a way to meet people, especially vendors. “People will say, ‘Where’s Tony today.’ It’s very personal to them,” Cushman says.
It’s not unusual for patrons to run into old friends and neighbors.
Boaters docked at the nearby Fort Pierce City Marina “can go to the store, so to speak” at the market where local and state products support local farmers and local vendors. “One of our goals is to promote Fort Pierce as a great place to visit, what it is that Fort Pierce has to offer,” giving a positive image of the city.
Downtown businesses love it because visitors to the downtown market pass by their stores and support them as well. “It’s a good thing for everybody,” Cushman says.
“It’s a fun place to go to, a great way to go out in the morning.”
The market is also close to the library, and in walking distance to the Manatee Observation and Education Center and the A.E. Backus Museum, also along the Indian River Lagoon.
The market has up to 70 vendors in the wintertime. Participation might drop slightly in the summertime, due to changes in the crop season and out-of-town visitors.
Every Saturday, rain or shine, the market is open from 8 a.m. until noon. Vendors start setting up at 6 a.m. The market association has a permit to operate from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Estimates of visitors range from 2,000 to as many as 5,000 on good Saturdays for people enjoying the market.
Customers converge on the market from St. Lucie, Indian River, Martin and Okeechobee counties, and also include residents of Palm Beach and Broward counties, as well as American and Canadian tourists.
The idea for the market actually began with a proposal for a community garden, recalls Brenda Gibbons, vice chairman and vendor as owner of Gibbons Farms Organics. That eventually evolved into the market at the marina square, then a grassy area across from the library in 1997 before it was turned into a park. There might have been 12 to 15 vendors in the beginning, but they increased rapidly. Gibbons remembers there being about 30 vendors when she and her husband began selling produce there in 2000.
Anita Neal, University of Florida Extension agent and Master Gardener, envisioned about 15 vendors promoting locally grown fruits and vegetables when she helped start the market and then served on the board for 10 years.
Throughout the years, the market grew in the number of visitors and vendors as downtown redevelopment continued. A separate crafts market for vendors was also set up to provide more products.
“We have a fabulous venue on the waterfront and we have ample parking easily accessible by land and water,” Gibbons says. “There are a lot of residents and marina users. We maintain quality and have a great band every week. We utilize local talent. It’s become a great place for people to come and socialize and pick up food.”
Not only is it an opportunity for vendors to promote their food, but the market is also used by local nonprofits for information and education.
Profits earned by the 501 C-3 organization above fees and expenses go into scholarship funds set up by Indian River State College for agriculture-related fields. There are 14 active board members. Some of the original members and vendors still participate.
The market has been named among the top five markets in the nation by American Farmland Trust’s Farmers’ Market Celebration for the past couple of years, praised for its healthy food, atmosphere and promoting community and environment.
But more than that, the celebrated market remains one of the great meeting places to draw families and shoppers from all over, enhancing the beauty of downtown and the city’s economic engine.
If you go …
What: Fort Pierce Downtown Farmers’ Market
Where: 101 Melody Lane, between Avenue A and Orange Avenue
When: 8 a.m. to noon, Saturdays, rain or shine
Free parking: behind city hall, between Avenue A and Orange Avenue; the city trolley also picks up visitors at the parking garage near U.S. 1