The Kansas Grown Farmers Market at 21st and Ridge Road grew so much last year — the largest surge in its 13 years — that its 119 vendors took up every inch of pavement available. This year, the trajectory continues, with 140 member vendors — now up into the grass.
“Our market keeps becoming larger and larger, and that draws in more and more customers, and that draws in more and more vendors,” said Jim Beyers, a hydroponic farmer and the head of publicity for the Kansas Grown market. An average Saturday draws roughly 3,000 to 3,500 people, he said; Tomato Day last year set a record with 6,000.
Kansas Grown seems to have found a synergy that every market tries to reach.
“I remember several years ago we had a decline in membership for whatever reason. ... Now we’re on a nice incline.”
The rebound happened after two or three years of market-parching drought, Beyers said. Last year, grateful consumers gobbled up an exceptional crop of juicy tomatoes — the star of every market. “My goodness, they came out for the tomatoes,” he said. The plant-pleasing wet weather this spring spells another strong year in 2015, said Pat Randleas, manager of the Old Town Farmers Market.
“I think it’s going to be a great produce year,” said Randleas, who expects 55 vendors in Old Town this summer. “I think all the markets are going to be nice and full of produce, so we need everybody to come out and eat the local food.”
A greater diversity of products is also helping draw in customers, Beyers said. Anybody who wants to shop local — including people who want to eat healthier by eating locally grown and raised food — can find new ways to do it at all the markets in Wichita.
In addition to finding an increasing amount and variety of produce, customers can buy local-grown cut flowers and plants ranging from natives to exotics, locally-roasted coffee beans, paleo foods for people and pets, fishing and barbecuing items, homemade wooden furniture, new twists on the cinnamon roll, jewelry, clothing and meats.
“Three bring grass-fed beef, another poultry, two pork — one from Buhler brings in lamb,” Beyers said of the Kansas-Grown meat vendors. “We have several vendors with fresh eggs. And jams and jellies like you’ve never seen before,” including one line that comes in flavors of wine (and Mountain Dew).
And no longer do you have to have cash in your pocket to shop: Most markets accept credit and debit cards, either in individual vendor booths, or at their information booths, where the cards can be used to buy tokens for spending with all the vendors.
Markets are open four days of the week in Wichita — Tuesday and Thursday afternoons-into-evenings and Wednesday mornings in addition to the traditional Saturday mornings.
Five booths were set up in the Lincoln Heights parking lot at Douglas and Oliver on Wednesday morning this week — jams and jellies, plants, fresh vegetables, Monroe Coffee Roasters selling cups of pour-over coffee (hot or iced) and bags of their roasted beans while they wait for permits to get their new cafe set up down the street in the Dockum building.
The Old Town and Kansas Grown markets have Facebook pages listing updates of what’s going on each week. New customers are continuing to find the markets.
“I was downtown running, so I stopped by to pick up a Mother’s Day gift,” Theresa Doan said last weekend as she sat on a bench at the Old Town market, eating a breakfast burrito from Cow Tippers (look for the giant skillets of sirloin tips, onions and mushrooms). “I figured they had things that you can’t find in the store — something authentic and different.” Doan had picked up a bouquet of snapdragrons, peonies and dianthus in a tin can for her flower-loving mom.
“I didn’t know it was every week,” Doan said of the market, “so I’ll probably come back.”
The amount of produce is slowly picking up at the markets as the weather warms; June should bring an explosion, Beyers said. Randleas hopes the same can be said for the customers. The wet spring has a downside: A cloudy day can keep shoppers away.
“The threat of rain seems to scare many people off,” Randleas said. “We regret that, because everybody works all week for Saturday. Take a chance. We do.”
The markets each have their own atmosphere. In Old Town Square last Saturday, children drew pictures on the pavement with sidewalk chalk, bicyclists hopped off their bikes and walked them through the square. The Old Town market allows dogs; the Kansas Grown doesn’t. Master-gardener events such as Herb Day and Tomato Day are held alongside the west-side farmers market, while the Old Town market has free Spice Merchant coffee, a featured chef who does demonstrations and can answer questions starting next weekend, and a kids corner with activities for children. Kids can be seen clutching balloon creations at both markets, and both have musical entertainment each week.
June Hicks and her daughter Carlotta Stevens get together every Saturday morning — usually with June’s sister — to do something in the community and then have lunch together. Last Saturday brought them to the Old Town market, where they bought big hanging baskets of geraniums. “It’s kind of homey to me,” Hicks said of the market.
Experienced vendors are increasing their reach at the markets, while new vendors are coming on board.
“Business is awesome,” said Mary Buffo, who sells her farm-fresh flowers at the Kansas Grown market on Saturday mornings and will be at the Kechi market when it opens Thursday evenings starting June 4. She has had to move her truck out of her booth space outside the Extension Center to make more room, putting up a double tent that her family calls “the love shack” in the space.
“It has to be a lot bigger, because I am growing more flowers every year than the year before,” Buffo said — from striped snapdragons to Canterbury bells to long-lasting lisianthus to delphiniums. Her bouquets range from $5 (with tax) to $20.
“I find an increase in customers who have an interest in flowers,” Buffo said. “It’s how we support our family now.”
Produce, of course, remains the backbone of the markets. When locally-grown food is in season, it can be a different taste experience from grocery-store fruits and vegetables. The Kansas Grown market is able to meet the demand, Beyers said.
“When peaches are in season, at least three vendors bring in peaches. One vendor has 10 acres of cantaloupe and watermelons and brings them in by the trailer load. We have an abundance of fruit.” Market customers were able to buy local tomatoes as early as April, because a few vendors have hoophouses, “and these varieties have lots of flavor,” Beyers said. “We have three growers bring those in. We have an abundance of tomatoes.”
Wes Johnson is in his first year at the Kansas Grown market. He sold his Hesston Plant Co. last year and bought part of Eberly Farms, where he and his partner, Megan Greenway, grow edibles for market in such fresh combinations as “garden party salad” — a colorful mix of greens, radishes or kohlrabi, broccoli shoots and carrots. The addition of Greenway’s little chalkboard signs describing the products and giving the prices give their booth a trendy look.
Johnson is enjoying switching gears to selling at the farmers market.
“They’re so popular, it is fun to be part of that community. You have people who are passionate about something and make that part of their lifestyle. It’s always nice to see the customers come and support us.”
Wichita-area farmers markets
Here are some of the farmers markets in the Wichita area this year:
Kansas Grown, 7 a.m. to noon, 7001 W. 21st (at Ridge Road); kansasgrowninc.com, Kansas Grown Farmers Market on Facebook
Old Town, 7 a.m. to noon, 150 N. Mosley; www.oldtownfarmersmarket.com, Old Town Farmers Market on Facebook
Derby Kansas Grown, 7 a.m. to noon, 611 N. Mulberry in Derby (new location this year)
Kansas Grown at GreenAcres, 3 to 6:30 p.m., 21st and Rock Road in Bradley Fair
Lincoln Heights, 7 to 11 a.m., Douglas and Oliver
Kansas Grown at Normandie, 3 to 6:30 p.m., Central and Woodlawn
Kechi, 4 to 6:30 p.m. starting June 4, United Methodist Church at 4533 E. 61st St. North; sponsored by the Kechi Chamber of Commerce.