Ernst: Business buzz from unlikely source — a farmer’s market

Patrons shop Dec. 29 at the Englewood Farmer’s Market along the 300 block of Dearborn Street in downtown Englewood. More than two dozen vendors are participating in the market, which is open Thursdays from 9 to 2.

Business districts love a buzz, and Englewood’s Dearborn Street area has had one going for about two months.

The buzz emanates from an unlikely source: a farmers’ market. The market is open about four hours once a week on a Sarasota County lot on Dearborn just west of Mango Street.

Everyone has been talking about it since it debuted on Nov. 3 with 18 vendors. About 1,500 people showed up then, leading some veteran sellers to declare it the best opening day ever.

Word spread quickly — not only among people longing for home-grown produce and other local products — but also among vendors. On the Thursday before Christmas, a crowd of about 2,000 strolled among 38 booths, buying sausage from Bailey’s Butcher Shop, strawberries from Hernandez Farm Produce and rain barrels from Mother’s Garden Products.

“It’s awesome, just incredible, a lot more than we expected,” says Vaughn Dufour, who with his brother Dean comprises The Herb Guys.

“People are here to buy,” Dufour adds. That’s an interesting distinction. Dufour says his Englewood sales equal those at the Saturday farmers’ market in Sarasota, which attracts crowds of 5,000 or more.

“It’s almost as if people were starving for a farmer’s market,” Dean Dufour says. “They keep saying, ‘Please come back.’ They appreciate it.”

As a measure of its success, the market, starting this week, will extend its closing time an extra hour to operate from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays.

The novelty has probably played a part in the market’s popularity. But then again, this was an idea long overdue and well-executed. Credit for the latter goes to the Englewood Center for Sustainability, an offshoot of the Friends of Sarasota County Parks, and based in the county Deltec buildings near Buchan Airfield.

The idea and original push came from Marie Laforge, co-owner of Mango Bistro. She envisioned a market to recognize Dearborn Street’s status as the center of town. Through networking among neighborhood and business associations, the sustainability center picked up the concept and ran with it.

Lee Perron deserves some credit, too. As an unpaid center member, he’s spending about 30 hours a week practicing the half-art, half-science of running a farmers’ market. He’s in charge of quality control. He makes sure vendor products don’t overlap too much. He plots out booth locations. He juggles emails and phone calls and does all the paperwork.

If nothing else, the market is drawing 1,500 or so people to Dearborn Street each week, many of whom would not otherwise go there. It’s too early to gauge the effects, but Perron predicts that over time it is sure to help the businesses along the street.

As the center explains on its website, sustainability means more than just adopting green practices. It refers to an approach that sustains the overall well-being of a community, recognizing the environmental, economic and social dimensions.

The sustainability center has another equally well-executed project going: a community garden behind the Deltec buildings.

Center members, among them garden coordinator Lou Taft of Englewood, visited community gardens from North Port to Sarasota to determine what works and what doesn’t. They came up with a layout of about 20 plots, averaging 10-by-10 feet, and all were claimed within 90 minutes.

Gardening started in October with soil prep and some rules: Everyone chips in on the occasional work days; no commercial fertilizers; no pesticides. When it comes to bugs, “We do a lot of picking and squishing,” Taft says. It’s a true organic garden. Water comes from cisterns that catch rainfall off the building roof. Gardeners have to carry it to their plots.

They’ve run out of water a few times. They’ve had their share of failures, notably cucumbers and squash. But they’ve got enough growing well to announce a grand opening ceremony at 11 a.m. Thursday.

The gardeners have harvested respectable heads of lettuce. And the broccoli — well, it’s practically producing more than its tenders can consume. In a pinch, they know where they can sell it on Thursdays. Now that’s sustainability.

Eric Ernst’s column runs Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Contact him at“> or (941) 486-3073.

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