The Olympia Farmers Market is widely touted as the second largest market in the state, behind Seattle’s Pike Place Market. But the truth is even grander.
“We’re actually the largest true farmers market on the entire west coast,” says Olympia Farmers Market general manager Charlie Haney. “Everything here is made or grown in four local counties: Thurston, Mason, Lewis, and Grays Harbor east of the Wynoochee River, whereas Pike Place imports stuff, as well.”
Olympia Farmers Market offerings include fresh, organic produce, meats, cheeses, and seafood, of course, but also baked goods, plants and flowers, a wide variety of arts and crafts from local artisans, and a scrumptious selection of eateries. Grab a bite, and then grab a seat at the foot of the covered stage, which provides live music every day the market is open.
Haney has managed the Olympia Farmers Market for 21 years, supported by a seven-member board of directors made up of market vendors. Her expertise is sought far and wide by others eager to emulate her success.
“I get ’em from all over the country – people call me, they email,” she says. “A lot of cities come to me and ask, ‘What do we do? How do we do it?’”
And rightly so, since Haney’s way works so incredibly well. The Olympia Farmers Market pulls in about $5 million annually, money that goes directly to the locals who run the market’s 115 vendor booths.
The market receives no outside funding; no grant money or subsidies from the city or the Port. “I always tell everybody, the city gets these blinders on,” she says with a laugh. “They think I’ve got that money in a drawer in my office. I don’t.”
In fact, Haney says she opened the market last year with just five dollars in the kitty.
“The actual income of the association is about $475, 000, and that has to pay for everything – water, sewer, garbage,” she says. “We pay over $100,000 a year in rents to the Port, we have to pay for our vendor parking. We don’t get anything for free.”
The market has only three employees, because, Haney says, they can’t afford any more. “And none of us are getting rich,” she says good-naturedly.
But Haney does love her job, even though she likes to joke about the inherent difficulties of wrangling so many vendors. “I’ve tried to escape, but it doesn’t work,” she says with a laugh. “I tell everyone I wear my straightjacket underneath my clothes.”
“If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t still be here,” she continues, “but it’s like running a giant daycare. And yet, if your house burnt down tomorrow, they’d all be the first ones at your door.”
Haney had a kidney transplant in 2003. “The president of my board of directors gave me this kidney,” she says. “It just goes to show that we’re a family – dysfunctional, yes – but a family.”
The market is completely supported by vendor fees, which average between 7 and 10 percent of vendors’ sales. Haney stresses that those rates have only been raised twice in her 21 years at the market. “It’s very cheap to be here [as a vendor],” she says. “It really is.”
With annual visitor numbers said to reach half a million, the Olympia Farmers Market is a huge draw for locals and visitors alike.
“The Oly market is so much more than a market,” says vendor Todd Waltermire, farmer and proprietor for Oakland Bay Farm. “It’s the center of Olympia on a consistent basis. You can always count on the market being packed Thursday through Sunday, April through October.”
“The Market has its own rhythm,” says Deb Petersen, who runs her Shepherd’s Soap stall at the market. “It’s inviting, friendly, wholesome, and entertaining.”
Petersen dubs the market a social hub for locals. “There’s always something going on, always something to see, and it’s just a perfect way to spend an afternoon,” she says.
Olympians know this, and keep returning to the market week after week. “Generations of children have grown up in the market. I’ve watched both shoppers’ and vendors’ children being brought to the market in strollers, then toddling through the market, and eventually they’re off shopping for gifts for their family all on their own. It’s a very cherished part of living and growing up in Olympia.”
Petersen began selling at the market as a guest vendor in 2003. In 2006, she became a full member vendor. Guest vendors are only allowed to set up on Thursdays and Fridays.
“The market started the guest vendor program in an effort to bring in new, fresh items, as well as to fill up some of the stalls that were otherwise empty on those days,” explains Petersen. “I always looked at my guest vendor days as a sort of ‘paying my dues’ period. It’s not easy to get into the Olympia Market as a full-time member, so the guest vendor program serves as a proving ground, so to speak.”
Vendor turnover is incredibly low among vendors and competition to land a rare open spot is stiff.
Capital High School teacher Kelli Samson is an enthusiastic market regular. “I go every week, and it’s usually a family affair,” she says. “The trip always takes longer than we expect because we run into everyone we know. So it’s walk a few steps, the kids tug-tug-tug on us, and then we walk a few steps more.”
Shopping locally is important to Samson. “It means something to see the faces of the people who grew my food,” she says.
Last year Samson discovered Waltermire’s Oakland Bay Farm stall and became a devoted customer. “They sell meat that’s raised the way I approve of,” she says. “So even though that meat costs more, we buy it.”
“We own and raise every single one of the animals that end up feeding our local community,” says Waltermire, whose animals are grass-fed only non-GMO, certified organic grain. “I love providing folks with a product that I’d want if I was still a market customer instead of vendor.”
“The market is a perfect slice of Oly,” says Waltermire. “It attracts every single type of person that populates Olympia: politicians, hippies, preppies, students, parents, kids, grandparents, loggers, environmentalists. Everyone is represented.”
Haney agrees, and knows well that credit for the market’s success rests squarely on the shoulders of its extremely supportive community. “We’re totally community-driven,” she says. “Most of our income comes from local people who come down every week to buy their food. We could not survive if we were tourist-generated.”
“It’s the people,” she continues. “and a lot of them we know by face, because they’re here every week. That’s who we count on.”
Find the Olympia Farmers Market here:
700 N. Capitol Way
Olympia, WA 98501
Reach them with any questions here:
Shop and soak up the sunshine and friendly vibes at these days and times:
Thursday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm, now through October
Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm, November and December