SHERIDAN — Spring and summer bring back many things long lost in the winter months. Sunshine, green grass, open water and clear pathways draw people outside and encourage many to once again be more mindful of their health.
As plants wake up from their winter slumbers, gardeners from hobbyist to professional levels are getting their hands dirty planting and harvesting a variety of crops; and once again all of these joys of summer will soon come together in the Sheridan Farmers Market.
This season will mark the 14th year of vendors distributing their locally grown foods in a fair-like atmosphere and it is shaping up to be the biggest year yet with a schedule of special events and myriad changes.
The event started on Grinnell Plaza and was moved to Whitney Commons in 2007. In an effort to increase visibility and attendance, the event was again moved last year and is now held on Main Street in Sheridan.
“The move back to Main Street was kind of controversial in the beginning but it is part of our Main Street focus and brought visibility to the vendors so people driving by would see it and pull over,” market organizer Bonnie Gregory said.
“It’s a beautiful park and we do miss the fountains but the ultimate goal is to raise the economics of those local vendors while getting fresh food into the hands of the consumers and last year was the most profitable year for the vendors yet, so it worked.”
Gregory said the event started out slow, having only four vendors in its first year, but thanks to the national refocus on local foods and a lot of passionate marketing from organizers it has more than doubled in size in the last four years alone.
“The local food movement has been prevalent throughout the country for quite a few years and it’s finally catching on in Sheridan,” she said. “We are wanting to become more aware of our food and support our local merchants, but farmers markets are difficult. It takes a lot of passion.”
That passion led the Downtown Sheridan Association to conduct several surveys of vendors and consumers and this year will be implementing changes reflective of their input.
“Restrooms were an issue to people so this year we have the key to the public restroom on Main Street and will have a dedicated Porto-Potty that will be cleaned the day before each event,” she said. “We are working on getting handicap parking in front of City Hall and a number of other convenience enhancements.”
Other changes this year include the longest market season to date with an additional pre-season market currently open, held by the vendors in the Community Room at the DSA for distribution of early spring crops.
“As the spring crops start coming in, they just have more and more,” Gregory said. “They are also taking pre-orders for things not yet ready to harvest, like chickens.”
One thing that has never changed is the booth fee. Vendors are still able to sell their food at a cost of just $10 per event.
“We want it to be affordable for people to have a booth and we feel the economic and health benefits of buying local and eating healthy multiply that income by five so we don’t need to charge a lot up front,” Gregory added.
The Farmers Market will play host to several special events this season, so many in fact that Gregory has resigned her position as project manager at DSA to focus solely on being the organizer of the Farmers Market series.
With the elongated season, the first market will open during rodeo week and though the produce may still be coming in, special offerings are in the works to serve the crowds expected to be downtown.
“We have a lot of other artisans like bakers so I’m hoping that the tourists and increased traffic on Rodeo Week give the vendors a jump start on the market,” Gregory said. “We’re also planning on having a beer garden with music and food vendors.”
Some of the markets also overlap with Third Thursday street festivals, in which case the Farmers Market vendors are bumped down Grinnell and set up in front of The Sheridan Press.
The market organizers are also cooking up their own events including a Fall Festival and a Sheridan Chef Throw-down.
For the chef’s competition, nine local chefs have registered for a cook-off in which they will be given $35 to spend at booths within the market to prepare the best dish possible.
Gregory says the purpose of the event goes beyond entertaining the crowds to hopefully show the chefs that our local producers can supply our restaurants with fresh, local foods.
The Fall Festival will be held during the final Farmers Market of the season on Oct. 4 and will include a community lunch, a beer garden, a pumpkin patch, live music and more.
Throughout the season the Farmers Market will offer a variety of activities including pie and watermelon eating contests.
“It’s a community event with a fair atmosphere, not just a come get your veggies and go home event,” Gregory said. “We want to foster community relations through the market as well.”
Current plans show the future of the Farmers Market will only continue to grow and change.
The DSA is currently working on a Goose Creek Restoration Project set to include a riverwalk which may house a permanent home for the market.
The increased use of social and digital media will make it so producers can sell their crops year-round online.
Gregory hopes this technology will also help promote the local foods movement while recruiting new producers to the area.
“Sheridan used to be the banana belt of sorts with lots of berries and diversified crops and it no longer is, so we’re focused on recruiting new producers,” she said. “I’m excited for the local foods movement to grow in Sheridan. These producers are good hard working people with big hearts and I’ve invested a lot of time in this because of them.”
The market will run from July 10 through Sept. 25. The pre-season market is open now, offered weekly on Thursday evenings.
Producers interested in selling their crops can register online — for the first time ever — by seeing www.sheridanfarmersmarket.org, or call the DSA office at 672-8881 to register.