The Yelm Farmers Market kicked off its season on May 22 not with a bell or a whistle, but with a 24-carrot salute. Representatives from the city council, chamber of commerce and Yelm Cooperative board of directors joined local farmers and customers to enthusiastically hold their carrots aloft while new manager Suzanne Santos proclaimed the market, based at Nisqually Springs Farm, open.
Santos came into a market that has grown steadily in revenue and popularity since it began it 2012. The salute is just one innovation Santos brings after more than a decade of managing multiple markets in Austin, Texas and serving as Executive Director of the Sustainable Food Center, an organization focused on sustainable living through gardening, cooking, and farm direct sales. She moved to the northwest last year.
She’s found the business community supportive as a whole. “There’s a direct and enthusiastic jump by the small businesses to support the farmers market and other things like Dollars for Scholars,” she notes. “It makes a huge impact to get that support.” Currently the market has $9,000 in sponsorship from local businesses. Local officials’ participation in the opening ceremonies was also significant. “They realize the importance of this market in the community.”
This season she is continuing the hugely successful Power of Produce (PoP) club initiated by former manager Karen Rae as well as adding new programs. When children ages 5-12 join the free PoP club, they’re given a badge and a small shopping bag. Each week when they register, they receive $2 of market tokens that they get to spend on fruit or vegetables or a plant that grows food. In 2015, 660 children signed up for the program.
Feedback from parents at the end of last season was overwhelmingly positive, with comments like, “I am so very grateful for the opportunity for the children to try new things. My daughter has started a garden from plants purchased with tokens,” and “Thank you so much for your time and inspiration. My kids to choose to eat healthy and even grow their own foods.” One elementary school student began growing his own tomatoes and giving them away to all of his friends, a source of pride. He was back at the first market this year, reconnecting with Susan Runnels, the farmer who originally sold him the plants.
This season adults also are getting their own program, what Santos calls ‘Five for Five.’ For a limited time, anyone who attends five markets and collects five stamps will get $5 in market tokens. “A lot of people are excited about that,” she says.
Santos has other plans, not only for the market’s height of season kick-off on June 19, but overall. She’s adding ‘Taste the Place,’ a regular booth where shoppers can sample the wares of local farmers, as well as a children’s activity booth. The grand opening will include a treasure hunt, sack races, carrot darts, and more. Student volunteers from Yelm High School will also be leading an activity as part of a special group project.
Santos has been adjusting well to her new home although there are some major differences – like the seasons. “In Texas, almost all of the farmers markets are year round,” she notes. Because of the short growing season, Pacific Northwest farmers have to be resilient. “I’m really amazed and in awe of how they make it work,” she says. “They produce beautiful, tasty, nutritious fruit and vegetables in a short window of time.”
She’s also impressed by the local shoppers. “I’ve learned that people will come out to the market, rain or shine,” she says. “The rain is not a damper.”
Before moving to Austin, Suzanne spent several years as a hillside agriculture Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras and later trained agriculture volunteers in Costa Rica. Regardless of where they live, farmers are change agents in their communities, she says. “It’s important to understand their struggles and achievements. The most important part of my job is getting the community to be aware of the great things they have to offer.”
She’s looking forward to connecting with more of the community and discovering ways to make more parents and children aware of the PoP program. The market is always looking for volunteers, she says, and anyone interested in contributing time or donations toward the market can learn more at the information table or contact her directly at email@example.com or at 512-797-1195.