Now in Season

After several stumbles, the South Perry winter market is up and running.

Lea Scott and Brian Estes - LORETTA SURMA
Loretta Surma
Lea Scott and Brian Estes

The scene at the South Perry Winter Market is about what you might expect at 3 pm on a Thursday afternoon in January. It’s cold inside the Spokane Buddhist Temple’s old gymnasium. Standing behind tables covered with baked goods, produce and crafts, vendors wear wool scarves, caps and fingerless gloves. The huge space is only about half-full. There’s a big empty space between the last row of tables and the back wall, where an old upright piano sits waiting to be played.

It’s been a rocky few months for the inaugural winter season of the South Perry Farmers Market.

The organization of farmers and vendors, which does brisk business in the parking lot of the Shop coffee house during the summer, was scheduled to open for winter operations in November. On what was to be its first day, the market, then located at Emmanuel Family Life Center, had 19 vendors, ready to sell. But 10 minutes before opening business, the fire marshal called: The church didn’t have the right occupancy certification to operate as a farmer market.

What followed, according to farmer and market director Brian Estes, was a months-long exodus, during which the organization searched for a new home and battled through red tape.

“I’ve never spent so much time at City Hall in my life,” he says.

But on Dec. 2, they re-opened at the Buddhist gym. Now, they’re trying to lure their patrons and vendors back.

Estes wanders the cavernous room, greeting people at the door, conversing with vendors and customers, observing. Despite the halting start, Estes, wearing a winter cap and a thick, dark beard, remains confident that the winter market can thrive, and serve not only as an economic engine for farmers and the South Perry neighborhood, but as a way to serve the community with healthy food.

Fresh produce in Spokane in winter isn’t all wishful thinking, either. With South Perry’s summer market sales up 400 percent this year, local demand and vendor interest was strong. It made sense for the market to build on local — and national — momentum. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported a 17 percent rise in winter markets since 2009, a reflection of surging national interest in year-round access to locally grown goods, even in places like Spokane, where the traditional growing season is short.

This rise is challenging farmers to get more creative with their approach to growing.

“This year, I’m looking at my seed catalog in a whole new way,” Estes says. In 2011, he’ll focus on late-season crops and greenhouse options.

With the new location secured, Estes hopes the venue will grow to house community gatherings from contra dance to educational classes, and that it will inspire a conversation about how neighborhoods can create robust economies around farmers markets.

And the market is beginning to grow. By 5 pm on this Thursday afternoon, the market has picked up. People file in, shaking snow from their coats, filling the cavernous building with the sounds of commerce.

The vendors here are diverse. In one corner, Mel Wisener, a fisherman for 30 years, sells smoked Alaska salmon — fish he caught during the summer months. Rocky Ridge Farm — self-proclaimed “organic purists” — sells fresh eggs, meat, potatoes and winter squash, carrots and spinach. Transitions New Leaf Bakery offers goods baked fresh on market day by low-income women who are working to be self-sustaining.

One shopper, Jennifer Hansen, beelines for a back table, where a vendor is selling shea butter skin cream and handmade goats milk soap. Hansen buys bergamot-grapefruit and vanilla-berry soap, which she says she can’t find anywhere else.

As a resident of the South Perry District and a public health educator at the Washington State Department of Health, Hansen has many reasons to call herself a market regular.

“There isn’t a lot of access to fresh fruit and vegetables in this area,” she says, noting a food inadequacy left by a lack of full-service South Perry grocery stores. “I like supporting the vendor directly, and the sense of camaraderie among the community is wonderful. I get to know what my neighbors are cooking for dinner. We have those conversations.”

Two young women in thick galoshes and pinked cheeks talk animatedly with Art Boyman of Tonnemaker Hill Farms, echoing Hansen’s sentiments.

“The market gets me outside. I can walk here with my dog,” says Kathleen DeMaria. “We pick up fresh veggies, then go to the Lantern or South Perry Pizza.”

Indeed, both the tavern and the pizzeria were packed later that night with a good number of market-goers, like DeMaria, who are extending their usual summer market routine into the winter.

“We’ve gotten to know the farmers,” Julie Pastima says, back at the market. “Right, Art?” She points to a large jar of canned peaches on the table, and Boyman smiles. These are peaches he grew on his farm — peaches he sold to Pastima this summer. She’s gifted them back to him to eat during the cold months.

“We’ve come full-circle,” he says.

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