The farmers market: A growing affair

Farmers market manager Allison Bockus talks to Rebecca Wittman, who will replace Bockus this winter. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Farmers market manager Allison Bockus talks to Rebecca Wittman, who will replace Bockus this winter.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

Islanders and tourists turned out in droves for Saturday’s Farmers Market, buying fresh greens, ripe tomatoes, carrots and caramels as the sound of music wafted through the air. Some lined up for La Playa’s tacos and tamales. Others sat at picnic tables, chatting with friends under a warm September sun.

It was a typical day at the market, except that this one was particularly special to those who organize the weekly event: The market’s vendors sold $12,902 worth of produce and goods, a new milestone for the bustling market.

“It was our best day ever in market history,” said a clearly pleased Allison Bockus, the market’s manager. “Labor Day weekend is usually a good weekend. But this one sets a new record.”

Like farmers markets everywhere, Vashon’s has felt the impact of a lingering recession. But now, as Bockus turns over the reins to Rebecca Wittman, hired as the new manager by the Vashon Island Growers Association board late last month, Vashon’s farmers market seems to have fully turned a corner. And these days, it’s again packed with people and lined with well-stocked tables week after week.

Bockus stepped in at a difficult period a year and a half ago, taking on the position after the Vashon Island Growers Association, a nonprofit that oversees the market, decided not to renew then-market manager Ivan Weiss’s contract, a move that divided some of the vendors.

But Bockus, a tall, energetic woman whose 11-year-old twins sell hand-made bracelets at the market, has helped to bring a new energy and professionalism to the enterprise while retaining its funky, home-grown flavor, some say. 

Under Bockus, every vendor now has a sign — many of them artful and colorful — that touts his or her farm. Tables are heaping, in part because she sometimes squeezes vendors together to make sure there’s a look of abundance. A new co-op booth has been added — a place where Island gardeners who have extra produce but not enough to justify a whole table can sell their goods. 

She’s also pushed the envelope on occasion. Determined to make the bazaar what she calls a “buyers’ market,” she brought in an off-Island honey producer after she couldn’t find an on-Island one — a move that angered some market loyalists, who say only Vashon products should be sold there. The honey producer left earlier this summer after failing to draw enough business.

And just this week, she brought East-West Roadside Produce into the fold, ending a long-standing division that began seven years ago, when East-West — unable to sell at the market because of VIGA’s bylaws — started selling produce in front of The Hardware Store Restaurant. East-West will continue to sell its goods in front of the restaurant, but it will now have a stand at the farmers market as well.

“Allison has done a great job of growing the whole market,” said Rob Peterson, owner of Plum Forest Farm, a fixture at the market. “She’s been a very upbeat and positive presence.”

Hedy Anderson, who sells six kinds of hand-crafted caramels every week, said she considers Bockus a leader and mentor. Bockus has worked well with her, she noted, providing marketing advice as well as a remarkable amount of support — charting her sale numbers, for instance, and sending her notes of encouragement. 

“She’s a great marketer, and she’s good with people,” Anderson said. “She’s brought a lot of life to the market.”

This season, however, marks Bockus’ last at the market. She and her family are headed to Costa Rica this winter for a year abroad. And Saturday, as she showed Wittman the ropes, walking her through the many steps of managing the bustling place, she noted that Wittman will now be the one charged with taking the market to the next level.

The next challenge? More customers, said Bockus. 

While the market has grown — customer counts have gone up as well as sales — the market averages around 400 to 500 customers a week, half of whom, Bockus believes, are tourists. On an Island with a population of around 11,000, she said, that’s a thin amount of support.

“The market’s running beautifully. We have fabulous vendors. The next challenge will be to get Islanders to support this Island treasure that we have,” she said.

Wittman, like Bockus, has a background in marketing and retail. Bockus and her husband owned  a garden retail store in Seattle, Herban Pottery & Patio, which they closed a few years ago to spend more time as a family. Wittman, a former real estate agent, has been involved in the textile industry; she’s also played a high-profile role on Vashon, implementing the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association’s marketing campaign and curating its exhibit on K2.

Vendors say they believe Wittman has many of Bockus’ qualities; she, too, some noted, is energetic, professional, organized and enthusiastic. What’s more, she has a profound appreciation of Island history — a history rooted, in part, in agriculture.

“I’m really excited about Rebecca. She has a vision for the market that connects it to its agrarian ... history,” said Joe Yarkin, who runs Sun Island Farm with his wife Celina. “That’s my interest, too. I love the history.”

As for Wittman, she notes she has big shoes to fill. But she also said she’s thrilled to be taking on a position that seems to be at the heart of Island life.  

“I feel like a kid who has gone to summer camp and found all my people there,” she said Saturday as she took in the lively scene. “I feel so welcomed and embraced. It just inspires all kinds of courage and ideas.” 

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