Farmers Markets are known for their array of fresh, local fruits and vegetables. But there’s a growing trend for American made, local artisans to peddle their wares too.
Walk past the fresh flower stand, the French creperie and the coffee cart, and you’ll find designer Lori Roark from LilyGirl set up with her stand of locally, handmade jewelry. LilyGirl has been a fan of the farmers markets for years, enjoying the camaraderie of the other vendors.
“I love the feeling of being connected to other people with the same mind set. There’s also something rewarding talking directly with the shoppers who appreciate handmade,” explains Roark. “They ask me about my life and story, stuff like, ‘So how do you like working with your sister?’ and it makes me feel more in touch with everyone.”
LilyGirl Jewelry is just one of many non-food vendors at the Little Italy Mercato in San Diego, Calif., a weekly farmers market that takes place every Saturday morning, rain or shine. Just recently, I noticed the already expansive mercato was stretched out even farther than I’d previously ever seen it. Catt White, the market’s organizer, agreed that she’s seen a big increase in the artisans who want to sell non-food items.
But how does the process work? And why sell arts and crafts at a farmers market? “At all our markets, we choose non-food vendors based on how closely related they are to our primary mission of creating a food and household market,” explains White. “So wine bottle stoppers, artsy aprons and locally-crafted cutting boards are likely to be selected.”
According to White, only certified farmers and producers can sell at CA Certified Farmers Markets. However, these local markets often combine with special events to offer more than the fresh food items. “As long as the non-certified vendors are separated from the certified farmers in some way, that’s a great way to offer shoppers a one-stop shopping experience,” says White.
Not everyone agrees that crafts belong in a farmers market. Heather Hunter, owner of Cowgirl Granola, also attends a weekly market and has noticed the recent uptick of artisan sellers. Hunter believes artisans should be part of the market movement, especially given their contribution to the growing rate of these events that are popping up across the nation. But she’s not too excited about the craft segment as a whole.
“It’s called a farmers market for a reason. People want fresh fruits and veggies and handcrafted and artisanal food items,” says Hunter. “If someone is making BBQ pits in Texas, perhaps that is something that should be considered as it is a cooking vessel, but if someone is making bows and headbands for kids, I really think this has no place in a high-quality farmers market.”
From what I’ve gathered from both anonymous food vendors and shoppers alike, it seems to come down to the quality of the items. Nobody wants to see “arts and crap” or things made in China at these markets. Shoppers want to connect with real life people like Roark and Hunter, who are making products in their local economy.
Unfortunately, some vendors disguise themselves as cutesy local artisans, trying to blend in with the actual hard-working craftspeople. It makes you wonder if the market operators care more about quantity over quality. There’s just nothing magical about finding a cute crocheted hat in a booth, only to find a “Made In China” tag on the back.
The Little Italy Mercato has been one of my favorites to date. There’s really something beautiful between the local residents, vendors and even the tourists that makes me crave a morning walk through the charming streets of this San Diego district. If I started seeing imported goods mixed in among the true local artists, I’d start to wonder what makes a farmers market any different than your average street fair.
According to White, they put a priority on their buy local policy. “We are more likely to accept a vendor selling goods that they design and make in San Diego than one offering imported goods.” But is “more likely” good enough? Or should market operators make it a strict policy that imported goods need not apply?
Photo from LilyGirl Jewelry