Anita and Ron Murphy talk about their produce during a press conference about the upcoming farmers market in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. Utah’s largest farmers’ market returns to Pioneer Park on Saturday. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Desert News)
Estimated reading time: 6-7 minutes
Salt Lake City – The downtown Salt Lake City farmers market is a huge deal for produce growers like Tyler Montague.
While his company, Keep It Real Vegetables, makes money selling to about two dozen local restaurants and grocery stores, the farmers market accounts for at least half if not more of his business income.
However, it’s more than just money that keeps his urban farm afloat. There’s something different about doing face-to-face dealings with customers at a farmer’s market – it just feels different than normal business dealings.
“It’s a bonus,” Montag said Tuesday, standing next to a small sample of the types of vegetables he sells. “We spend all week working in the fields but then we get to the markets and the people are really grateful. It’s definitely a way to strengthen the connection with the community.”
Keep It Real Vegetables will be one of about 250 grocery or arts and crafts vendors at this year’s market, each week starting on Saturdays in Pioneer Park through October, according to Alison Ennerson, executive director of Urban Food Connections of Utah, the organization that operates the market. The market will also bring back its valet parking service this year for people who prefer to ride bikes in the park.
Basically, the market is returning to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic reduced vendors and services in 2020 and again last year.
“We’re totally back,” said Einerson. “It’s going to be a great year. Expect full crowds again.”
The market is expected to bring 10,000 to 15,000 people to the park every weekend during the summer. Between the COVID-19 vaccines and the total number of people who have recovered from the virus, Inerson added that she believes there is enough protection for a “great, safe year.”
Utah’s largest market is also expanding to other days and parks. Urban Food Connections in Utah took control of the smaller Liberty Park Market from Liberty Wells Community Council over the off-season market. About 60 vendors will be in Liberty Park on Thursday evenings from June 16 through the end of September.
This means more market time for shoppers and sellers alike.
Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, is thrilled with what this means for small businesses. The Downtown Salt Lake City Farmers Market is not just a grocery, retail, and entertainment event, but a business incubator of sorts.
He notes that the farmers’ market helped build the Ricoh brand into a large-scale food company and transformed Sweet Lake Biscuits and Limeade from a Lemonade and Biscuits stand into a restaurant with three locations across the Wasatch frontage. These are a couple of the many examples that are available.
“It provides a low barrier for any company to gaining a broader business and customer base,” Miller explained.
Since every vendor has suffered in one way or another over the past few years due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, Innerson said she’s pleased that operations will return to normal on Saturdays and that small businesses have the option to set up shop on Thursdays, too.
This gives them more opportunities to expand into their brick-and-mortar space in the future, either through selling at groceries or opening their own workspace.
“That’s really all there is to it,” she said. “It’s about giving people the opportunity to build and grow a business, and exploit it as widely as they want.”
Utah Governor Spencer Cox, who grew up on a farm and his extended family continues to sell at farmers’ markets, stresses that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of what local farmers are doing. Shoppers can find some of the produce they want at farmers’ markets because local farmers have not been affected by supply chain issues such as grocery stores.
He adds that experts have known for some time that locally sourced foods are better for the environment and communities, as well as businesses.
“We’ve seen for ourselves, as a family, how important these markets are to Utah’s economy,” the governor said. “I will also (say) the best food in the world will be right here. Our grocery stores have great food and we love the food that is sold there, but if you can get to the farmers market, you will get higher quality, more flavor and better opportunities to help support our economies local”.
How dehydration factors in operations
Many sellers are still struggling for reasons beyond COVID-19. The ongoing drought situation in Utah is a concern for farmers across the state, with the risk of lower crop yields for the second year in a row because many watering tanks will dry up early.
Montag finds himself in a better position than some of the other vendors because his business is based on eight parks connected to Salt Lake City’s public utility system, compared to buying and selling his water rights. He doesn’t have to pay a little extra for water, but that extra price comes with added security because he’s going to have water this year.
“I certainly sympathize a lot with other farmers who depend on irrigation water, which is turned on later and after each season and turned off earlier in each season,” he said. “I think this is a problem that needs to be addressed.”
Despite the added water security, Montag knows that if conditions continue the way they have been since 2020, he could also end up facing spending cuts. Salt Lake City started this watering season where it ended last year, in the second phase of its water emergency plan. This does not mean much to his operations. However, the fourth stage is where residential water use ends up moving from voluntary conservation to mandatory action.
This is something that likely won’t happen this year but could be around the corner unless Utah receives a good few years of rainfall. This reality is why he has already taken action to prevent a backlash in the business from any water cut back, and installed drip irrigation systems to be more efficient with his water. It’s the same tactic many rural farmers are using as water becomes increasingly scarce across the state.
Agriculture and ranching typically result in about 80% of Utah’s annual water consumption. But the threat of drying up some access early is why Montague believes all methods of water conservation should be considered this year and into the future.
“The way we use water, we need to find ways to transition to drip irrigation,” he says. “(We should) water at night and (do) other things that help us not waste the water we have.”
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