After more than 20 years, the Oak Harbor Farmers Market has permanently closed. However, another group is gearing up to create a new farmers market in town.
The Oak Harbor Farmers Market had struggled to attract customers and vendors alike, and last year’s COVID-19 restrictions were the last straw.
The now-defunct farmers market was located on Highway 20 next to the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce on Thursday evenings in the spring and summer.
Sheila Case-Smith of Case Farms north of Oak Harbor was president of the market and was involved since the beginning.
One of the nice things about a farmers market is the relationship that can develop between farmers and customers, she said.
Some of the farmers disappeared as the years went by, and that was a factor in the market’s closure, Case-Smith said.
“We’ve lost a lot of vendors,” she said. “There have been retirements, deaths, and we haven’t been getting as many new vendors, because as the years have passed, the requirements have increased.”
Even before COVID-19, health permits and other government requirements had become increasingly difficult for vendors to meet, she said.
“It became less of a hobby-type opportunity to go be a vendor at the market, than it became much more business with a lot more government requirements,” Smith-Case said.
A rise in produce delivery businesses and community supported agriculture ventures, or CSAs, also had an impact, she said.
In its heyday around 2010, the market had 75 vendors, she said.
The number dropped to just 10 last year, according to Market Manager Peg Tennant.
“That’s not quite a 50 percent drop” compared to the years leading up to the pandemic, Tennant explained.
Tennant has been involved with the market for many years. She said that the market simply did not have enough funds in the bank to continue.
Costs such as permits, insurance, garbage and the new costs for public health and safety during the pandemic forced organizers to close.
There was also a lack of available farmers, she said.
“I have a list of 25 farms that either closed, the farmer retired or the farmer passed away,” Tennant said.
Customer attendance also fell.
Tennant said customer walk-throughs probably fell about 60 percent last year compared to the year before.
Tennant said that a high turnover in the community led to a lack of awareness about the market, and people wanted more ready-to-eat foods as opposed to fresh produce.
Tennant said that the market had to have a balance of produce to processed foods, like jams and cheeses, to maintain a certain status with the Washington State Farmers Market Association.
Since it was a farmers market, she said, there was an emphasis on local produce as opposed to hot foods.
However, two vendors suggested that there were some management issues that stifled growth.
“I think over the last few years the board lost interest to a certain degree, and kind of allowed it to fall apart,” said Elizabeth Agin of Maya Farms.
Agin has been selling honey, beeswax and some textiles at the market for the last four years. She is also the president of the group organizing a new market called The Whidbey Island Farmers Market.
Agin said her goal is to open this spring at Windjammer Park in Oak Harbor, although the group is still getting plans together.
“A lot of the vendors were just ready for something fresh and new,” she said.
“It was time.”
Owners Jimmy and Arianna Carroll of Arbia Pizza also said they felt as if there was not as much energy put into the market from management recently.
The pair were vendors at the Oak Harbor market for the past few years.
They also sell at the Anacortes Farmers Market and noted that it has music, more vendors and customers than the Oak Harbor one.
They said they also heard that becoming a vendor was a difficult process for some people because of communication issues.
“I don’t think the energy level from the powers that be really put the effort into what the potential could be,” Jimmy Carroll said.
After finding out about the closure on social media, Carroll said he was happy to learn about Agin’s idea.
“I’m really excited for the potential and what the future has in store,” he said.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.