The Salt Lake City Downtown Farmers Market is a huge deal for produce growers like Tyler Montague.
While his business, Keep It Real Vegetables, makes money by selling to about two dozen local restaurants and grocery stores, the farmers market represents at least half of his business income if not more.
Yet, it’s more than money that keeps his urban-based farm afloat. There’s just something different about having face-to-face transactions with customers at the farmers market — it feels different from normal business transactions.
“It’s the payoff,” Montague said Tuesday, standing by a small sampling of the kinds of vegetables he sells. “We spend all week toiling in the fields but then we get to come to the markets and people are really grateful. It’s definitely a boost and a way to connect with the community.”
Keep It Real Vegetables will be one of about 250 grocery or arts and crafts vendors at this year’s market, every week beginning Saturday at Pioneer Park and into October, according to Alison Einerson, the executive director of Urban Food Connections of Utah, the organization that operates the market. The market will also bring back its bicycle valet service this year for people who prefer biking to the park.
In essence, the market is returning to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a reduction of vendors and services in 2020 and again last year.
“We’re fully back,” Einerson said. “It’s going to be a great year. We expect full crowds again.”
The market is projected to bring 10,000 to 15,000 people to the park every weekend during the summer. Between COVID-19 vaccinations and the overall number of people who have recovered from the virus, Einerson added that she believes there’s enough protection for a “great, safe year.”
Utah’s largest market is also expanding to other days and parks. The Urban Food Connections of Utah assumed control of the smaller Liberty Park Market from the Liberty Wells Community Council over the market offseason. It will bring about 60 vendors to Liberty Park on Thursday evenings beginning on June 16 through the end of September.
That means more market time for shoppers and vendors alike.
Derek Miller, president and CEO at the Salt Lake Chamber, is thrilled by what that means for small businesses. The Salt Lake City Downtown Farmers Market isn’t just a grocery, retail and entertainment event, but a business incubator of sorts.
He points out that the farmers market helped build Rico Brand into a full-scale food company and turned Sweet Lake Biscuits and Limeade from a limeade and biscuit stand into a restaurant with three locations across the Wasatch Front. Those are a couple of the many examples out there.
“It offers a low barrier for any business to gain a broader business and customer base,” Miller explained.
Given that every vendor has struggled in one way or another over the past few years because of COVID-19’s economic impacts, Einerson said she’s thrilled that operations will be back to normal on Saturdays and that the small businesses have the option to set up shop on Thursdays, as well.
This gives them more opportunities to expand into brick-and-mortar space in the future, either through selling at grocery stores or opening their own business space.
“That’s really what it’s all about,” she said. “It’s about giving people the opportunity to build a business and grow it, and take it as large and wide as they want to go.”
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who grew up on a farm and whose extended family continues to sell at farmers markets, contends the pandemic did highlight the importance of what local growers do. Shoppers could find some of the produce they wanted at farmers markets because local farmers weren’t as impacted by supply chain issues as grocery stores.
He adds that experts have known for a while that locally-sourced foods are better for the environment and communities, in addition to business.
“We have seen first-hand, as a family, how important these markets are to the economy of Utah,” the governor said. “I will also just (say) that the best food in the world will be right here. Our grocery stores have amazing food and we love the food that’s sold there, but if you can get to a farmers market, you will get higher quality, more flavor and better opportunities to help support our local economies.”
How the drought factors into operations
Many vendors are still struggling for reasons beyond COVID-19. Utah’s ongoing drought situation is a concern for growers across the state, resulting in the threat of fewer crop yields for the second-straight year because many irrigation reservoirs will run dry early.
Montague finds himself in a situation better off than some of the other vendors because his business relies on eight gardens connected to the Salt Lake City Public Utilities system, as compared to buying and selling his own water rights. He does have to pay a little extra for his water but that extra price comes with more security that he will have water this year.
“I definitely have a lot of sympathy for other farmers who are relying on irrigation water, which is being turned on later and later each season and turned off earlier each season,” he said. “I think that’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Despite the extra water security, Montague knows that if conditions continue the way they have been since 2020, he could also end up facing cutbacks. Salt Lake City started this irrigation season where last year’s ended, in Stage II of its water contingency plan. That doesn’t mean much for his operations; however, the fourth stage is where residential water use ends up turning from voluntary conservation to mandatory action.
That’s something that likely won’t happen this year but could be around the corner unless Utah receives a few good years of precipitation. That reality is why he’s already taken actions to prevent business blowback from any water cutbacks, installing drip irrigation systems to be more efficient with his water. It’s the same tactic many rural farmers are also doing as water becomes increasingly scarce across the state.
Farming and ranching typically result in about 80% of Utah’s annual water consumption. But the threat of having some of the access drying up early is why Montague believes all ways to conserve water should be considered this year and in the future.
“The way that we water, we need to find ways to transition to drip irrigation,” he says. “(We should also be) watering at night and (doing) other things that help us not waste the water we have.”
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