Five years after a small group of women started a farmer’s market in downtown Aberdeen, Lauren Garrett remains the only founding member still officially associated with the Aberdeen Sunday Market.
From the beginning, Garrett dedicated herself as market manager in her spare time. But recently, when the nonprofit that runs the market failed to capture a highly competitive federal grant that would’ve brought $250,000 over three years to enhance the market, and provide some compensation to her role, Garrett decided running the market had become too time-consuming to balance with an already busy life and full-time job.
“That was kind of my last attempt to be able to actually do this as a job full time,” Garrett said in an interview. “I’ve been doing it for five years with no pay, so I kind of had to move on.”
Garrett said she will likely stay involved as a board member of the nonprofit WHOLE Harbor. But as the market looks ahead to its sixth season of Sundays in downtown Aberdeen, the last founding member’s downshift is emblematic of pressures felt by the entire operation — too many things to do, and not enough money, or people, to do them.
On Feb. 5 the nonprofit launched an online fundraising campaign for the Aberdeen Sunday Market, stating the market had reached a “critical mass for functionality.” Miscellaneous costs of the market, the campaign said, were beginning to stack up: signage, radio and print advertising, professional marketing, market entertainment, trash fees, trailer registration, liability insurance and portable bathrooms.
As of Thursday afternoon, Feb. 8, the fundraiser had garnered $140. Organizer and WHOLE Harbor board member Amy Twigg set the campaign goal at $15,000, although she said that number was a “pie in the sky” and won’t make or break the market this year.
In an application for lodging tax funding through the city of Aberdeen last October, the nonprofit pegged its 2024 expenses, not including a market manager payment, at a little more than that fundraising goal. The city awarded the market $4,250 out of its $8,500 request. In total, the city awarded $55,000 in 2024 lodging tax awards out of its $90,000 budget. The nonprofit also applied for lodging tax funding through Grays Harbor County but did not receive any.
The market sets up on a city block on Broadway each Sunday in the summer, typically from May to October. Twigg said the market usually sees 25-40 vendors per week and charges a $25 per-week fee for vendors who aren’t food producers or nonprofits or educational booths that aren’t selling goods. WHOLE Harbor expects to collect $6,500 from vendor fees in 2024, according to its city grant application, but that amount is not certain until the summer.
But as the summer staple restructures its board and vendors, people’s time and effort is perhaps just as important for a flourishing farmers market long term.
“Everybody’s at max capacity, but we’re still putting in that time,” Twigg said. “We have no more time to give.”
A jewelry crafter and massage therapist, she joined the market as a vendor in the summer 2022 and came back in 2023. She said she won’t have a booth this year, however, as she focuses on a new role on the WHOLE Harbor board. The group’s four nonprofit board members are unpaid volunteers, and the board does not include the market manager position which the group ultimately hopes to fill and compensate.
Other volunteers are in short supply, and the market has struggled to recruit and maintain them. Twigg said the need for helpers to perform tasks like setting up and deconstructing tents, cleaning and taking customer inventory is “huge and unmet on a weekly basis.”
With the manager role in flux and no consistent cohort of volunteers, Garrett said, “it would be a real challenge to put it on every week at the capacity we’re at right now.”
Organizers floated the idea of reducing the number of operational days for this summer, perhaps running every other week. For local farmers, that would mean a big drop in revenue, said Wes Harp of Harp Acres farm in McCleary.
Harp is taking on an increased role and reliance in the Aberdeen Sunday Market this year. One of the market’s most prominent producers, Rob Horton, who runs Bee Organics Farm and Apiary, won’t be selling vegetables there this summer. Horton instead decided to lease his two acres of market beds near Elma to Harp. With that land, in addition to his five acres near McCleary, Harp will likely grow the largest volume of veggies of any producer at the market this summer.
Harp started selling in Aberdeen in 2023 after quitting his job in the cannabis industry to farm full time. Before the pandemic, most of his farming revenue came from delivering community supported agriculture programs through Washington state, or from people buying straight from the farm.
Neither of those has proved as viable since 2020. Then Harp turned to the Saturday Morning Market in Montesano and the Aberdeen Sunday Market. On opening day in Aberdeen last year, sparse crowds had him skeptical. But as the weather warmed his operation started “averaging a good amount of money every week, and it never went down.”
“What a lot of it was the tourists,” Harp said. “A lot of them were camping over on the ocean or somewhere right around Aberdeen, and they were bored and looking for something to do and heard there was a market.”
“That Aberdeen market, turns out that it produces more money for us as a vegetable farm than any of the other markets at all do,” he said.
That’s only if he can sell for 20 weeks this summer, he said. Already invested in the makings of this summer’s vegetables, and with the inflated cost of seed and soil, Harp guessed cutting selling days could mean a difference of $20,000 in revenue.
“I’m over $8,000 cash out of my pocket as of today, and all I’ve got is packages of seeds and bags of dirt,” he said.
Harp said he’s tried to keep his prices reasonable and keep producing a variety of veggies for consumption within the county, which aligns with the mission of the market.
Garrett guessed that the market in Aberdeen is the only farmers market in the area that provides a match for food assistance.
“Farmers markets play a crucial role outside of the actual market you see in building food resiliency, nutrition education, small farm development, conservation efforts,” Garrett said. “It’s a really, really big undertaking, and the farmers market itself is kind of like the cherry on top.”
Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.