- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

HOMER, Alaska (AP) - After a trip to Washington state in February for a farmers market conference, the management of the Homer Farmers Market is certain of one thing - Homer’s small town market is on par with, or exceeding, other markets in the United States.

As a part of a USDA grant the Homer market received last year, market manager Robbi Mixon and board member Lori Jenkins attended the Washington State Farmers Market Association conference in Olympia, Washington, in early February. Kyra Wagner, seasonal farmers market columnist for the Homer News and the mind behind Sustainable Homer, also attended on a scholarship from the market.

The association is made up of about 120 of the 180 farmers markets operating in Washington, and the conference attracted more than 200 people from Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska, Mixon said. The weekend of workshops focused on everything concerning farmers markets, such as marketing, bookkeeping, board leadership and food safety. Mixon, Jenkins and Wagner also took a trip to the Olympia farmers market and the legendary Pike’s Place farmers market in Seattle, about an hour away from the conference.

“It’s insane. I had never been to Seattle before, but we spent four hours there and barely covered half the market. It was pretty cool,” Mixon said.

One of the bigger surprises of the three-day conference was that the Homer Farmers Market is ahead of the game in many areas.

“Homer’s farmers market is a pretty high quality farmers market for as small of a town as we have,” Wagner said. “The fact that we have children’s activities, have music, have chef demos - all those things that take choreography from our manager. Our manager rocks. . A lot of markets are trying to find ways to reach out and how to get other people involved and Homer is already doing that.”

Though Mixon was already confident in the Homer market’s strengths, the conference was a chance to explore and discover new ideas and find out if there are ways to do the market better.

One of the more encouraging discoveries of the conference was that Homer’s market is not alone in some of the challenges it faces in day-to-day operations, like coordinating vendors and dealing with parking issues.

“I learned that a lot of our issues are not our own,” Mixon said. “All farmers markets seemed like they had the same challenges so that was a nice part of the conference, just talking to different people. . We learned a lot about supporting our vendors more.”

Looking forward, the market looks to continue finding a balance between supporting vendors and customers, since there is a symbiotic relationship between the two that is different than that between a customer and a grocery store, Wagner said.

At the conference the idea of seeing and honoring a customer as a co-producer, similar to a vendor since both bring something to the market, inspired the Homer market to think more about customer interaction. In addition to having locally grown produce, often at better quality or price than at a supermarket, the farmers market has the added layer of community.

“You don’t call a friend and say let’s walk down the freezer aisle at Safeway. It’s about interaction, it’s inherent in what a farmers market is,” Wagner said.

In the interest of supporting vendors, as well as opening new opportunities to customers, the Homer market is changing its operating hours on Wednesdays to have a longer market that opens earlier.

At the annual meeting that was held after the conference, the vendors voted to start the Wednesday market earlier and changed the hours to 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. The Wednesday markets will run June 22- Sept. 14. The first Saturday market of the season will be May 28.

“We went down there to see what we could learn. One of my takeaways is that the Homer Farmers Market is already pretty doggone cool,” Wagner said.

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Information from: The Homer (Alaska) News, https://www.homernews.com

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