On any given Saturday morning in the parking lot of Venice’s City Hall, throngs of shoppers stroll through the many booths in the Venice Farmers Market, sampling local delicacies and taking in the artwork. A recent visit saw many happy folks dancing to a vibrant steel drum calypso band as the delicious scents of fresh-baked French bread, Spanish paella and South American empanadas wafted through the crisp morning air. A variety of other ready-to-eat foods are available at the more than 50 stands featuring vibrantly colored baskets of organic and farm-to-table fresh produce from regional farms, as well as plenty of handmade arts and crafts.
The Venice Farmers Market’s success right now is due in large part to a number of changes that have occurred over the past few years. Following the retirement of the previous market manager, in June 2017 the City of Venice awarded the market’s contract to the nonprofit Friends of Sarasota County Parks with Lee Perron as market manager. Lee and his team of four—including Market Operations Manager Tom Stone, EBT/SNAP Manager Amy Stone and Operational Team Member Bob Deal—already had plenty of experience, having founded the Englewood Farmers Market (Thursdays, 9 a.m.) in 2011. Lee’s team is brimming with confidence, spirit and energy and has a sincere desire to bring the freshest local produce possible to Venice shoppers.
“Here when we started at the Venice Farmers Market, we had just 35 vendors, and 43 percent of them were selling arts and crafts,” Lee—wearing his signature welcoming smile and wide-brimmed straw hat—explains. “The first thing we realized was that we needed to diversify in the food space, we needed to bring in more certified organic, we needed to bring in more bakers. We needed to have foods here that people want to buy and consume every week. When we first started, there were no Florida farmers and no Certified Organic. Now we offer all of that and more.”
The group tapped into their many contacts in the local farming and craft foods communities to bring in new growers and have increased the number of vendors to 51. Along with the expansion of the fresh produce and food offerings at the market has been an increasing awareness of local residents of the health and environmental benefits of eating locally grown food. That has resulted in such an increased demand for fresh fruit and vegetables at the market that longtime vendors say the crowds now come immediately when the gates open at 8 a.m., and many growers sell out all their fresh produce quickly.
“This used to be a ‘late’ market; people would come later in the day, and it was a lot of arts and crafts and less fresh produce,” says vendor Sue Drummer of Venus Veggies, a 100 percent Certified Organic farm in Venus, Fla., who gets up at 3 a.m. every morning to load her truck with fresh heads of lettuce to take to market. “Now if people want to get something, they have to come early. It really is a farmers market now. I brought 100 heads of lettuce today and sold everything—all my kale and radishes by 10 a.m. Since Lee took over, my income has doubled, and the crowds have doubled.”
The move to City Hall’s parking lot because of the ongoing roadwork in downtown Venice has allowed the market to spread out, offering much more room for shoppers. But this relocation, which happened this past summer, also came with some challenges.
“I’ve been selling fish in the Venice Farmers Market for 23 years,” says vendor Maggie Balsch, whose stand offers locally caught grouper, snapper, tuna, pompano, cobia, hogfish, as well as cod and haddock from northern waters. “I am the only original vendor left. There have been pros and cons with the move. We have more space but do miss some of that foot traffic off Venice Avenue, and it is harder for some of Venice’s older folks from the KMI building to come over here. But the location is beautiful; it’s bigger, it’s wider, it’s easier to walk around. Those are really positive things.”
Lee says that since the addition of the new vendors and the market’s relocation, attendance has continued to grow and is now up 35 percent from where it was two years ago. He and his team take head counts in the market every 30 minutes to track attendance. The market is now attracting more than 4,000 people every Saturday. Some of those shoppers take part in the EBT and SNAP food assistance programs, and the Venice Farmers Market matches any funds spent by those participants up to $40.
“We really want people to know that,” Lee says. “We double the EBT and SNAP dollars. Local people are taking advantage of the matching funds. Our Englewood and Venice markets are in the top three for participation in this program in the whole state of Florida.”
The marker is a nonprofit organization, and the market managers in the past year have donated more than $17,000 back to the community, including gifts to the Salvation Army Food Bank, Good Samaritan Pharmacy (featured in the Good Times section of this issue), Our Mother’s House residential program, as well as local parks.
“A farmers market is where urban meets rural,” Lee says. “The farmers come to you. They just picked the produce yesterday, and you get to eat it today. It hasn’t been sitting on a truck for a week, and it helps us reduce our carbon footprint.”
Lee regularly makes meals for himself out of ingredients sourced strictly from the farmers market and suggests that anyone can give that a try.
“One recent meal I made, I went to Maggie’s for seafood, got a lot of fresh Gulf shrimp, fresh wild-caught and never frozen. They taste like lobster,” he explains. “I bought olive oil and vinegar right here in the market. Onions, sweet peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and fresh pasta made right here in the market. I grilled the shrimp and vegetables, cooked the pasta wet in the pan with fresh pesto. I had fresh bread made that morning from the baker. I had a wonderful meal,and I got everything here. It just takes good ingredients, and you can get all of it here in the Venice Farmers Market!”
City Hall, Saturdays 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. (until noon the off season), 941.445.9209. TheVeniceFarmersMarket.org