The Alliance for the Arts GreenMarket Celebrates 10 Years as a Community Hub
by Santiago De Choch
When a furious storm breaks out on the first day of an outdoor market, you would think the future doesn’t bode well for it.
But, you’d be wrong.
As an old hippie would say, what a long, strange trip it’s been…
In the Spring of 2009, a founding group consisting of farmer Ken Ryan, the late Sally Maitland of Matlacha, cheese connoisseur Caroline Hostettler, veteran and activist Dee Hohimer and Alliance for the Arts executive director Lydia Black envisioned a market that would take advantage of the beautiful Alliance grounds and bring the community together, while supporting local growers and businesses. Santiago De Choch was drafted as the market manger and has maintained the focus on sustainability and community ever since.
The community responded superbly after that first, stormy Saturday. With little more than word of mouth, a website, and mentions in the local press, the GreenMarket weathered its first year. A dozen visitors on the first few weekends turned into 50, 100, 500 and every year the numbers kept growing.
Early on, a strategic decision was made to keep the market small and carefully vet new vendors. Arts and crafts on offer must be created by the vendor, no reselling. Fruit, produce and seafood are preferably local. Any imported food stuffs, such as coffee, tea, cheeses and nuts, must be sourced responsibly, respecting fair trade practices. Non-food imports are banned, especially if they come from known polluters and human rights abusers.
Friends told friends and neighbors told neighbors. People would make a Saturday morning stop to check out what’s fresh and what new vendors were there that week. Families with children loved the space, where kids could run around, climb trees, laugh at the ducks and squirrels, and participate in arts workshops offered by Alliance educators as the parents shopped.
Neighbors walked and rode bicycles to the market, encouraged by longtime bike and pedestrian activist Dan Moser of BikeWalkLee and his team, who’d set up a booth to collect signatures and offer info about sustainability and safety issues often. Many folks brought their dogs on their market treks. Others had more unusual pets: iguanas, parrots, and memorably, a goat on a leash.
Soon, the GreenMarket started offering free urban farming workshops. Growers and experts have provided crash courses on everything from backyard gardening to organic pest control, hydroponics, rooftop beekeeping and raising chickens. It wouldn’t be unusual to visit the market and hear a rooster crowing from his cage, nervous about all the attention, or a swarm of mellow honeybees buzzing around their demo hive.
All this wouldn’t be so unusual in progressive bastions of the Northeast, or the West Coast; in Fort Myers, it was unheard of. The market manager kept scouting for interesting growers, helping start community gardens, even encouraging neighbors to bring mangoes and avocados from their trees to the market.
Unlike other places in the country, southwest Florida doesn’t have a lot of small farms. In time, a decision was made to let small growers, backyard gardeners and community gardens attend the market as vendors for free. This encouraged more small-time growers to bring their crop to the community without committing to a certain period of time at the market. To this day, neighbors, organic growers and community gardens just show up. You never know who will be there on a given Saturday, but it’s a safe bet that you’ll find blueberries in blueberry season, mangoes on mango season, okra in okra season.
Activities kept coming each year. Local chefs, like Gloria Jordan, give a few hours of their time and expertise to the community for cooking local demos, so visitors would know exactly how to use those mangoes and okra. Local musicians, organized by Chip Withrow, play at the market, and be rewarded with bags of fresh produce, homemade soaps, jars of honey, and a lunch of tamales. Local yoga studio Yoga Bird offers free yoga classes under the enormous mango tree at the Alliance campus.
The GreenMarket hosts everything from voter registrations to recycling drives, drum circles to children’s choirs.
It never engaged in partisan politics, but one of the proudest moments of the GreenMarket was a Save Our Water rally which featured speakers like legendary nature photographer Clyde Butcher, then-commissioner Ray Judah, Alliance director Lydia Black, and local mayors and representatives. Hundreds of locals came to support it, and environmental efforts continue to this day at the market.
The Alliance for the Arts GreenMarket motto is supporting local and building community; and its’ inspiration is the famous Mahatma Gandhi quote, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
It has had good days and bad days, days terribly hot, stormy days. Hurricanes have toppled trees and blocked access, and when that happened, the whole neighborhood and beyond showed up with rakes and chainsaws to help in the clean up. That’s the community that the GreenMarket relies upon: it helps neighbors, and neighbors, in turn, help it, support and nurture it, ensuring local growers, beekeepers, bakers, cooks, artists, musicians, and artisans have a venue to offer their wares.
The Alliance for the Arts GreenMarket is grateful to the community that supports it every Saturday morning. We raise a glass of hibiscus tea, craft beer or lemonade and offer Fort Myers and Lee County a toast: “Here’s to the next decade! Thank you! Salud!”