Spring rain dampened the typically convivial Saturday morning atmosphere at the Clark Fork River Market last week, but not by much. Vendors still huddled behind full tables, musicians played beneath the Higgins Street bridge and meat- and vegetable-toting, coffee-sipping shoppers still mingled. Business wasn’t as brisk, but it was buoyed by an increasingly large number of regulars who get their weekly shopping done in one place.
Diversity appears to be the key ingredient to the market’s success. Now in its fifth year camped at the south end of downtown Missoula, it offers a smorgasbord of local foods—produce, baked goods, salsa and, most notably, meat. There are even, on occasion, sheepskins for sale, hanging like pressed shirts.
“It does seem definitely much more busy this year,” says market manager Mary Ellen Carter. “It’s always hard to know, exactly, but it could be that we have more vendors, and sometimes the more vendors you have, strangely, the more people come to your market.”
With its new vendors and larger crowds, the upstart Clark Fork River Market appears to be challenging the cross-town Missoula Farmers’ Market’s 37-year Saturday morning market dominance. A signature Missoula institution, the Missoula Farmers’ Market was on the leading edge of Montana’s local food movement when it first started at the north end of Higgins Avenue. But some say the old-school market hasn’t progressed with trends in small-scale agriculture, and its rigid rules have pushed some vendors away.
The Clark Fork River Market stepped in to fill the void—and then some. So far this spring, the newer market has averaged about 50 vendors, twice the number its first year. Carter expects to host as many as 70 vendors by the height of the season, drawing it in line with the 70—80 vendors the Missoula Farmers’ Market’s has averaged so far this spring. At its peak, the older market expects to hold as many as 100 vendors.
According to Mel Parker, market master at the Missoula Farmers’ Market for the last 18 years, Clark Fork’s success hasn’t come at the expense of the old market. Instead, he believes it shows Missoula’s insatiable appetite for local food.
“They take the overflow that we can’t handle,” Parker says.
But the Clark Fork River Market has also caused some long-time vendors to defect.
“We’ve got a better vibe down here,” says Mike Duda of Bitteroot Organics.
Duda sells greens, herbs and heirloom tomatoes, and did so at the Missoula Farmers’ Market for 10 years, even serving a stint as its board president. He left because the market “got mired in their routine up there, and they’re just not willing to progress.”
Specifically, Duda says the market should change its rules to allow small-scale producers to sell value-added products—like beeswax lip balm or salsa—which can be a boon for farmers.
“I was looking around and not being able to see how jams and jellies were fine, but if you grow sheep and want to process the skins and sell those, there’s something wrong with that,” he says.
Farmer Ka Moua and her family were among the Clark Fork River Market’s first produce vendors. She says they became similarly fed up with the Missoula Farmers’ Market’s rules. For instance, Moua’s schedule forced her to miss a few weekends at the market. According to the old market’s rules, a vendor cannot miss more than five markets in a season. They also say “the vendor, grower, producer, and market seller must be one and the same individual,” meaning Moua couldn’t send a family member to sell in her place.
“The rules became a little bit more stringent on what we could and couldn’t do,” Moua says. “As a family we just decided the Clark Fork River Market best met our mission, and it was much more family oriented. That’s why we made the move.”
Beyond what vendors call a more relaxed atmosphere at the Clark Fork River Market, the biggest difference between the two markets is meat. The Missoula Farmers’ Market doesn’t allow it. The Clark Fork Market was founded on it. The Clark Fork Coalition wanted to provide ranchers along the Clark Fork River with a market for their beef to help them keep their ranchlands intact and free from development. When the Missoula Farmers’ Market nixed the idea of adding meat, a second downtown market was born.
Erin Barnett, director of Local Harvest, a food website with a nationwide directory of farmers’ markets, says the burgeoning Clark Fork River Market serves as an example of a national trend of people “thinking creatively about how to bring meat into the local food movement and how to set up direct connections between farmers and ranchers.”
Another example of the Clark Fork River Market’s ingenuity came in the form of accepting Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which let shoppers spend government benefits on local food. On a rainy Saturday, 37 EBT households visited the Clark Fork River Market and spent $890, according to Carter. The Missoula Farmers’ Market added EBT a year after the Clark Fork.
The markets resist the idea that they compete against one another, but the Clark Fork’s emergence has clearly opened the door for some change—and created more options for locavores.