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Why Do Small Farmers Markets Struggle?

Owens Field Market

Vendors set up at the weekly Owens Field Market at Hunter-Gatherer

The day before Free Times visited Greenleaf Farm owner Greg Brown at his field, a small part of the Carolina Bay Farm property in Lower Richland, a strong storm had trampled through the city. The rough weather came during the one day a week market the Owens Field Farmers Market at the Hunter-Gatherer Brewery’s Hangar location, where Brown and other local farmers were set up to sell.

“Yesterday was a little tough,” Brown says. “We were outside. Stuff at my table got blown away. We canceled market right after. The elements is one thing we have to accept.”

Brown took over as market manager for the Owens Field event after City Roots stepped down as organizer in 2018. With help from Hunter-Gatherer, the market moved across the street to the Hangar’s spacious yard. The transition has not been smooth, though, as the market has struggled to maintain steady merchants.

In recent years, there have been many versions of farmers markets in the Rosewood area and greater Columbia. The list of markets that have opened and closed or hang on by a thread is numerous: Rosewood Market, City Roots, Richland Mall, Lake Carolina, Richland Library, Irmo, Downtown Lexington, Sandhill and Healthy Carolina are some of the most prominent to have come and sometimes gone.

But while such markets are popular, they remain a difficult proposition.

“There are a lot of different factors,” Brown responds when asked why farmers markets struggle. “Weather is one thing. Advertising, getting people excited to go there. One of the things if you are a small farmer is it’s real hard to do both the farming and the paperwork.”

At Owens Field, Brown says it’s hard to add more vendors, especially competing vendors (multiple farmers, food trucks, etc.), when there is such a low turnout. Lack of interest directly affects sales, and having competition means that farmers could be losing rather than gaining money by being at the market. Until the turnout grows, it is hard to invite more vendors, which means stunted growth for the market itself.

During the summer, the heat prohibits certain vendors from participating due to the sensitivity of their products. Produce is at its peak, but the reduced number of farmers on site deters potential customers from showing up.

During his five years of running Congaree Milling Company, Kenneth DuBard has also seen his fair share of markets in the Rosewood area.

“When I started I thought I was in a growth situation [for farmers markets], when in reality I came in at peak and it’s been off ever since,” DuBard offers. “Maybe it’ll come back, maybe it won’t. Really profit is not my main motivation, it’s being part of the community, which is something that I always wanted to do.”

It’s impossible to discuss local markets without mentioning Soda City, the popular Saturday showcase for some farmers and a lot of craftspeople and food trucks. Drawing big, diverse crowds with its products and its people-watching, it’s one of Columbia’s most popular events.

“Farmers markets started with a good intention,” posit’s Emile DeFelice, Soda City Market’s founder and a former farmer. “As a vendor in markets for 20 years, I used to describe myself as a victim of good intention. We were vending markets where the focus was not the vendor. It’s not just here, it’s everywhere. When you don’t find this priority of the vendors you’re going to have this problem wherever you are. If the priority is not the vendor, it’s going to be a struggle.”

As a farmer, DeFelice found varying degrees of market success until striking gold on Main Street. He is no stranger to failure though — Soda City’s Sunday Brookland Brunches are one recent idea that failed to take off.

DeFelice advises that anyone planning to do a market — large or small — should understand how highly analytic the process is and start with a solid plan. He attributes the success of Soda City to a combination of factors, including the opportunity to keep learning weekly and refine his approach while also exploring new ideas.

“We get to practice over and over again because of our system,” DeFelice explains. “We learn something every single time. You have to keep on revisiting. There’s so many levels to this. We are constantly reevaluating what we do. There’s never any pause; the moment you relax is when things go south.”

Back in Rosewood, things are continuing to pop up as the community seeks a recipe for its own success.

While the Owens Field market pushes to find its stride, Casey’s Fireworks recently announced a farmers market at its historic location on Rosewood Drive. Jon Casey, a fourth generation member of the family, says this was an opportunity to bring back the original vision of the property, which was first an open-air market. The family believes their own success in the fireworks business and location can help spur the new market. Recent vendors have included food trucks, produce and plant sales.

“We’re just trying the full spectrum here with the open-air market,” Casey explains. “Create our own community here and giving back to the community at the same time. It’s been giving back to us for 70 years. We just wanted to return the favor.”  

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