STORY BY SARAH LEBLANC
When it comes to buying fresh, organic produce in Des Moines, there is no shortage of options.
Whether searching for a meal, home decorations, cactuses or candles, farmers market vendors come from all around Iowa to local markets to sell their products to thousands of visitors each week.
Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market, situated on Court Avenue, runs from the first Saturday of May to the last Saturday of October and boasts anywhere between 20,000 and 30,000 weekly patrons who flock to the market for entertainment and organic and local products.
“(Entertainment) is a draw to people who may not even know to seek locally-raised food or that knowing your producer is important because they’re drawn by the excitement of what’s happening at the market,” said Kelly Foss, the director of the Downtown Farmers’ Market.
“Once (people) are there, they’re having that opportunity to meet farmers and learn about the food and pick up some recipes.”
From a parking lot to nine city blocks, the Downtown Farmers’ Market has expanded exponentially and is celebrating its 40th season.
“(The farmers market) started in 1976 with an idea from a group of volunteers, a handful of vendors and a parking lot,” said Foss.
Foss now oversees around 300 vendors from 56 of Iowa’s 99 counties with the Vendor Advisory Committee.
“We only have a certain amount of space, so we want to make sure we’re really seeking variety and quality and passion is a part of it, too,” Foss said. “We want to seek people who can sustain this business and be part of the farmers’ market more than one term.”
The market’s evolution from crowded sidewalks to spacious streets has aided in its mission to support the community and advance the economic success of its vendors.
“The farmers market is kind of an engine for entrepreneurs,” Foss said. “That’s one of the goals, connecting people to the food that they eat and at the same time creating a very lively festive atmosphere to bring downtown.”
Though the Downtown Farmers’ Market is the most populated per week, the Valley Junction farmers market, held on Thursdays, and the Beaverdale farmers market, hosted on Tuesdays, value the neighborhood closeness they receive from their patrons.
“The people that come to our market are a lot of the neighbors,” said Jane Gasperi, vice president and vendor manager of the Beaverdale Farmers Market. “It’s a very family event.”
Now in its fourth year, the Beaverdale Farmers Market attracts around 1,500 weekly visitors between the hours of 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and hopes to increase its popularity for future years.
“It’s nice to know where our food was grown and meet the person who grew it and hear their stories,” Gasperi said. “I want people to come and get the fresh produce and meet these people and have that interaction.”
The Valley Junction farmers market, located on 5th Street in West Des Moines from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., hosts around 100 weekly vendors and spans over two blocks.
Coinciding with a theme of humble beginnings, the Valley Junction Farmers Market started out of the flatbeds of trucks and adopted its current format in 1988.
“About 15 years ago was when it kind of grew to the current size, and now we’re maxed out,” said Jim Miller, the Junction’s executive director. “We always get new vendors every year, but around half of our vendors have been here 10 years.”
Situated along rows of shops, the market also acts as a draw to local businesses.
“A lot of the main street businesses will stay open longer during the farmers’ market,” said Katie Funk, the events manager for Valley Junction. “Our main mission as an organization is to bring people to the shops.”
In order to obtain visitor loyalty, maintaining a variety in products among booths is crucial to both the success of the vendors and the market.
“We don’t like to overlap,” Funk said. “We want everyone to be successful.”