Jenny May Shervin discovered this summer that it’s hard to hold a farmers market without one crucial component: the farmers.
Just two of seven farmers from last year’s Jackson Hole Farmers Market on Town Square have been able to attend this year, largely due to a labor shortage. Shervin, the market manager, has begun soliciting donations in the hope of providing grants to a few of the vendors so they can return next year.
“I don’t see the point in having a farmers market if you don’t have farmers,” she said.
Ironically, the dearth of farmers is a product of the same qualities that customers love about small, local farms. They’re primarily family run, which means that when children go to college or relatives fall ill, the entire operation feels the blow.
“It was really hard to make a phone call this spring to the folks at the Jackson market and say, ‘Hey guys, we probably won’t be able to make it,’” said Richard Johnson, owner of Grove City Gardens in Blackfoot, Idaho. “They were very understanding. ... but for us as a family and for me personally, that’s one of the hardest decisions.
“I feel like I’m letting everybody down by not being there,” he said.
But with most of his seven children now grown and a family medical situation to tend to, he is left with few options.
For this season he has opened a portal on his farm’s website to allow exclusively Jackson Hole customers to order produce. He drops it off each week at Town Square but can’t stay to run a booth.
Curtis Haderlie, owner of Haderlie Farms in Star Valley, another longtime vendor in Jackson, also had to pass on the market this year. His “diversified family farm” produces a wide range of vegetables and meats, along with dairy products.
When you keep cows, he said, someone has to be around to milk them 365 mornings a year. This year he didn’t have anyone else to do it. That’s the reason for his absence on Saturdays, though he has been able to make the unrelated People’s Market on Wednesday afternoons.
“It just boils down to labor,” Haderlie said. The hard work and low pay, he said, discourage many potential employees. “When we have the help we can pull it off, and when we don’t we can’t.”
Shervin said she has secured two $1,500 donations and is pursuing another for $5,000. Beyond that she hopes to bring in $1,000 or so in small donations from market-goers over the next few weekends.
After the market closes for the season, the board plans to announce three winners, who will each receive $3,000, at its fall festival Sept. 21. With another six Saturdays between now and then, Shervin said, “you can be part of the process of bringing the farmers back and letting them know we want them there and we miss them.”
She said anyone interested in helping can also donate to the market through Old Bill’s Fun Run for Charities next month.
Johnson said he is grateful for the relationships he has built over the years with customers in Jackson and for the community support they are now showing.
“To see a market be that much engaged,” he said, “it’s not the norm.”
Haderlie also appreciates the effort to retain farmers but said he was still considering whether the $3,000 grants will have the desired effect.
“I was pleasantly surprised that the market even cared,” he said. “I think a lot of markets don’t care about farmers in particular, because they just want a successful market.”
Jackson’s other weekly market, the People’s Market, is not connected to the one on Saturdays, and only a couple of farmers participate in both. Scott Steen, executive director of Slow Food in the Tetons, which runs the People’s Market, said the Wednesday event hasn’t felt the same strain this year.
The factors preventing farmers from attending the Saturday market are random and unique to individual farms, Steen said. They don’t extend to all farms, and happen to have spared the People’s Market while coincidentally hurting its weekend counterpart.
“It’s just sort of been unlucky for them,” he said. “The same thing could happen to us.”