By Claire Van Zee | Reporter
The Waco Downtown Farmers Market has provided locals with fresh, homemade goods for almost nine years. The market was established in 2011 when a group saw the need for a large community market where local farmers and artisans could sell their goods.
According to the market’s executive director, Bethel Erickson-Bruce, the purpose of a farmers market is to provide a space that allows local producers to have an outlet for their sales. “It’s about keeping dollars local and keeping food local,” Erickson-Bruce said.
At the time, the group was aware of a small farmers market, with three or four vendors working seasonally at the Extraco Events Center while also operating their own produce stand at the World Hunger Relief Farm on the outskirts of Waco.
But according to Erickson-Bruce, the group was looking to create something larger than what Waco already had in place.
While the group first asked the smaller market to collaborate, there was not reciprocated interest. The smaller market told the group to go ahead and start their own project, and so they did.
At the beginning of 2009, the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District said farmers markets could only be a place to sell vegetables, not eggs, honey or any other value added or prepared food, Erickson-Bruce said. So the group had to go before the city council to propose a different permit.
It was at that time that the market gained the support of the city, and the mayor as well, who eventually went on to join the board to form the new community market, Erickson-Bruce said.
In 2011, the market officially launched down by the river at an old RV park with lots of grass and trees.
“This was before the stadium and Magnolia were built. We are kind of like the old era of Waco in that way,” Erickson-Bruce said.
As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the farmers market was and still is required to have a board that oversees the operation. Until recently, it was predominantly made up of members from the founding group, including Erickson-Bruce. In order to get the market started, the board ran everything, Erickson-Bruce said.
However, over the years it became apparent that the market needed someone doing more hands on work, like scheduling and fee collection. It was at this time that the board created a market manager position and asked Erickson-Bruce to take over.
“Now I mainly oversee fundraising, policy compliance with different regulations, work with farmers and vendors, and coordinate with the board,” Erickson-Bruce said.
The board has begun to transition into being more hands-off, Erickson-Bruce said.
Some may be wondering why the farmers market they see today isn’t by the riverbank. In the spring of 2017, the market was asked to temporarily relocate to the courthouse parking lot while construction and development took place on the riverbank.
“We were told that we could move back after two years, which would have been the spring of 2019. So now we are into three years vacated and no development has even started,” Erickson-Bruce said.
While the relocation wasn’t ideal, it has in some ways improved business, Erickson-Bruce said. “Being in the center of downtown, we have had better foot traffic and better sales for our vendors, which is great. So we like the trade off overall,” Erickson-Bruce said.
While the plan is still to move back to the original location, it doesn’t come without its downsides.
“I think people romanticize the river location, but what we will return to will not be the same as it once was,” Erickson-Bruce said.
While they can’t add trees to the courthouse location, it does allow them more space and room for growth than what they had down by the river, Erickson-Bruce said.
The market currently hosts 64 vendors. Some come into Waco from as far away as Austin. Because the market operates year-round, vendor applications are on a rolling status. While everyone is welcome to apply, this year the market is specifically focusing on expanding the number of agricultural vendors, Erickson-Bruce said.
“Because we are an agricultural market by our permit, we’re supposed to remain 80% agricultural,” Erickson-Bruce said. This even includes prepared food vendors, so long as they use agricultural products to produce their goods.
Many vendors, such as WacoCha, have gone on to create their own brick-and-mortar storefronts.
“We are a good, safe launching space for businesses wanting to get started, and we hope that this goes on to bolster the local food scene in Waco,” Erickson-Bruce said.
While there are many new vendors, there are a select few who have been with the market since its inception in 2011.
One of these vendors is Happy Stuff, an all-natural body product business. The owner, Jill Boman, has been coming to the farmers market to sell her natural skincare, deodorant and lip balms for over eight years.
“The farmers market is just the coolest and happiest thing in Waco,” Boman said. “It’s fun to see customers here and compare the social dynamic to shopping at H-E-B, or any other store. You have strangers striking up conversations with each other. It’s just fun and much friendlier.”
While she believes the biggest change already happened, with the move from riverbank to courthouse, she also believes the market has truly grown into itself and will continue to do so in the future.
Other than the possible move back to the river, the market has also been considering expanding to another week day.
“Another weekday would be good for people who live far away or that, like me, have children with events on Saturday mornings. Sometimes it’s just not possible to make it downtown,” Erickson-Bruce said.
However, the market is content with the way things are going right now.
“While there is nothing we want to specifically change at the moment, if the right opportunity presents itself we’re ready to look into that,” Erickson-Bruce said.