ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
When sisters Sheryl Lehr and Joni Calam were making plans to launch a farmer’s market in Hillsboro this past summer, they knew they were venturing into uncharted territory.
No one prior to them had found the path to success.
Six months later, with the first season now behind them, they have every right to shout, “Eureka!”
You won’t likely hear them make that claim, but they will admit the experiment had a good outcome.
“I felt like it exceeded our expectations,” Calam said. “It was very encouraging to have people participate the way they did-not just the vendors, but people coming each week to support them. You can’t have a market if you don’t have people coming to it.”
And support them, they did. Lehr and Calam estimate the vendors who participated in the market sold more than $30,000 over the 26-week run from May 4 through Oct. 28.
“The incredible thing is that’s Thursday night in Hillsboro, Kan.-three hours an evening,” Lehr said. “I think we had we had no concept of what it could be when we started it.”
Added Calam, “We were thankful for the vendors who dropped in, but especially for the ones we knew would be there every week.
“Without faithful vendors, you don’t have a market. But they were excited to come back because of how much they earned.”
Calam said one vendor initially complained about the market’s $5 participation fee.
“After that first night, though, they signed up by the month and said, ‘This is so much better (than we thought it would be).’ They had no idea what it was like, and the response they had gotten was great.”
A few vendors did come once and not return, but Lehr and Calam said vendors who committed to a longer stay almost always came out ahead in the end.
“It’s really difficult for people to come for only one time and see how their things do here,” Lehr said. “You really have to give it longer than that because customers need time to think about things sometimes-especially high-dollar crafts.
“There’s a risk involved, but I think it evens out if you keep coming back because people know to expect you there.”
Most vendors came from Marion County, but some come from as far away as Abilene.
“You really want to promote Marion County and Hillsboro, but there are things we can do because we’re still small and new,” Lehr said.
“We’re not about exclusion,” she added. “At this point, we’re happy to have people come because the variety really helps, especially with baked goods.”
Lehr and Calam especially liked when cooler weather enabled them to hold the market on the open lot at Washington and Grand.
“It had a different feel there and we could have musicians come in-it just had a really good feel there,” Calam said.
For much of the summer, heat forced the market to the shade offered by the storefronts on the west side of the 100 block of North Main.
“The shade was great, but that was about all,” Calam said. “Everybody was spread out and you didn’t feel that cohesiveness with the other vendors because you couldn’t see the other vendors.”
“It wasn’t like entering a market,” added Lehr, “it was like entering a sidewalk sale-and there’s a huge difference.”
The sisters are already envisioning their second season in 2007 and challenge area gardeners to think about the financial possibilities.
“Because it was a spur-of-the-moment thing (this spring), people didn’t have time to plant-and they waited to see how it would go,” Calam said.
Added Lehr: “I hope people next year will jump in and say, ‘I’m going to plant extra and take it to the farmer’s market’-because the opportunity is there to sell it, and it provides income for the community.”
They also encourage more groups and organizations to take advantage of the opportunity to raise money by providing meals at the market.
“The opportunity is there for fund-raising,” Lehr said. “A lot of people didn’t take advantage of that, especially youth groups.”
She said women from Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church raised more than $6,000 this past summer to help equip the kitchen in the new building the congregation is erecting.
Lehr and Calam are already considering ways to make the market even more successful next summer. They discovered, for instance, that inviting people to have yard sales during the middle summer didn’t work well because of the heat.
“But we’ve already had a request for having yard sales all month, like in May when it’s cooler,” Calam said. “We might do that.”
One area the two women definitely want to expand is the voucher program the state offers for senior citizens.
“We had the possibility of another $3,000 (in sales) through the market based on vouchers being used through the senior nutrition program,” Lehr said.
“We know a good deal of the money did not get used because we didn’t have enough vendors signed up to accept the vouchers.
“That’s something we want people to plan for next year,” Lehr added. “It’s very non-invasive, non-threatening (to register). All you have to do basically is to sign the paperwork for the state and send it in.
“It’s a low-maintenance program, but it provides fruit and vegetables for seniors who otherwise maybe can’t afford and aren’t going to get it.
“We’re hoping people get plugged into the idea that they can provide something for seniors and everybody else. This is free money to the seniors and tax-free income to the vendors. It’s all sitting there to be used.”
Lehr and Calam are looking for some volunteer assistance for next summer.
“We’re just two people and enjoyed doing this,” Calam said. “We would like some more help because we don’t know what life will bring.”
Added Lehr: “There’s a lot of things that other people could do-just a segment of it, so it’s not a a lot of work for one person.”