A sure harbinger of spring is the opening of the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Markets in Ashland and Medford -- no matter what the weather may be.
It was raining when the Ashland market opened March 5 at the National Guard Armory, 1420 E. Main St. And the weather was quite brisk but sunny when the Medford market launched March 7 at Hawthorne Park. At both venues, enthusiastic crowds greeted the start of a new season for the popular open-air markets.
"We had our largest opening day ever," said Daria Land, executive director of the markets. "We had more than 70 new vendor applications. And out of the 134 active vendors for this season, we have 40 new vendors."
Customers were perusing the market’s offerings in Medford Thursday as if getting reacquainted with an old friend. Ellen Holub, who owns Buttercloud Bakery and Café with her husband, Gibson, was buying microgreens at the TerraSol Organics stand.
“We use them in our sandwiches,” she said with a happy face. “We’re right across the street!”
The Tuesday and Thursday markets run March through November. A downtown Ashland market on Oak Street runs Saturdays, May through October. And a winter market, new last year, will run from November through February at the Fry Family Farm Store, 2184 Ross Lane, Medford. Hours for the Tuesday and Thursday markets are 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and the Saturday market is open from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Land, 54, lives in Talent and is in her second year as executive director. She is assisted by new hire Johanna Talley, who serves as site manager. A board of nine directors governs the organization.
Land has a background in marketing, and she uses that experience to promote the markets to both vendors and the public. Via the website, patrons are invited to sign up for a free online newsletter that keeps them informed about special events and what’s new at the market.
Land is also a member of Talent City Council and serves on the board of directors for the Talent Urban Renewal Agency and Talent Chamber of Commerce.
This time of year, you won’t find fresh peaches, local tomatoes, or the like. Instead, you’ll discover an array of the best of the local winter harvest — spinach, chard, kale and other hearty greens, crisp, juicy carrots, potatoes, beets, microgreens and more.
The whole idea is to meet the demand of “locavores,” whose theory is that food not transported long distances is fresher, more healthful, and less harmful to the environment.
Other vendors sell artisan breads, coffee, chocolate, fresh eggs (chicken and duck), specialty meats, honey, cheeses, veggie starts, bedding plants, and prepared food for consumption on site or to take home.
Rounding out the vendor list are crafters offering a range of items from ceramics and soaps to kitchen tools and wood crafts.
“Our goal is to maintain a 60:40 ratio of grower and nongrower vendors,” Land said. The 40 percent is split into about half crafters and half processors of food products and vendors of ready-to-eat food.
New vendor applications are accepted for consideration only during the month of January. A jury decides which new applicants to accept.
“Essentially, anyone ag-based gets in,” Land said. She says exceptions include anybody who wants to resell produce purchased from a retailer, vendors of products that are of low quality, and products that are already well represented at the markets. Space availability also limits the number of food trucks.
“For the crafters, it has to be locally sourced or locally made,” she said.
Buskers also are part of the fun of the market. They range from musicians to balloon artists to jugglers and do not pay a fee.
“We have three spots for buskers at the Ashland market, two in Medford, and two at the downtown Ashland market,” Land said. If there are more buskers than places to perform, they are rotated in and out of available slots.
There is an uptick in market activity and the number of vendors in mid-April. The energy continues to build as summer approaches, and the markets are at full tilt June through September.
Like many Rogue Valley businesses, the markets suffered during last year’s smoke season, the most devastating in recent years. However, when the smoke went away in late fall, the markets made a quick recovery.
“We had a most amazing fall of sunny weather,” Land said, “and great weather through Thanksgiving. Vendors returned, and patrons came back in droves.” Their support put the markets back in the black.
Land says she loves her job. And she enjoys seeing how patrons and vendors relate and connect in so many ways.
“The thing I like best about the market I can sum up in two words: cultivating community.”
For more information about the markets, how to apply as a vendor, and to sign up for the online newsletter, see rvgrowersmarket.com.
Jim Flint is a retired newspaper editor and publisher living in Ashland.