You may have spotted the somber Instagram post over the holiday weekend: “Johns Island Farmers Market permanently closed for business.“
But that isn’t the whole story — the Johns Island Farmers Market (JIFM) may no longer exist in name, but it exists. The market’s longtime, loyal vendors have come together to continue the year-round market, and, if all goes to plan, starting Sat. Feb. 1 at 9:30 a.m., the market will reopen as the Sea Island Farmers Market. Same time, same place, same mission. “We’re just hoping for a new sign out front,” jokes Two Fat Cooks co-owner Eric Rogers.
Rogers and partner Kristy Bialas have unofficially taken over as the new market operators. They’ve run their Two Fat Cooks baked goods stall at JIFM for years, and they say when they heard rumblings that market co-founders Frasier Block and Blue Laughters were ready to close up shop, they stepped up. “We couldn’t let something like that disappear,” says Bialas.
While we were unable to reach either of the founders for comment, the devoted vendors say there is no bad blood — people, understandably, may want to move on after a while. It’s not easy work; the market that only closes two Saturdays a year after all.
Ashley Horry, who owns the seven-acre organic Kindlewood Farms with her husband Matt in Walterboro, says that she and the other 30+ vendors have “poured our heart and soul” into the market. “This is our whole thing … We decided we wanted to keep it going, [Block and Laughters] instilled such an awesome market for the area, people come out if it’s freezing or raining.”
The market has a lease with Charleston Collegiate School, which owns the property where the Saturday market is located. Rogers and Bialas say they’re just waiting for paperwork to get finished up to reopen the market under its new name — the old lease officially ends Jan. 31.
“It will look very similar to what it was before,” say Rogers. “Same vendors — we’ve all been out there quite a few years.”
If they hadn’t taken the helm, Rogers and Bialas say someone else would have. “The other vendors have all been kicking in,” they say. “It’s very vendor-driven — on a good week at the existing market there would be up to 30-40+ vendors.”
The two say they’ve gotten advice from their friends at the Pour House Sunday Brunch Farmers Market, another, albeit smaller, year-round affair. Although they have experience working a market, Rogers admits that running such an enterprise is an entirely different beast — “There are a zillion things we don’t know.” But they already have a tried and true location, with tons of shade trees and support from the school, which often hosts Saturday events that help funnel crowds to the market. Plus supportive vendors who are hungry to get back in business.
“If this had happened in the summer … there are a number of other markets the vendors could go to,” says Rogers. “But most of the other markets will be shutting down [after the holidays]. It wasn’t just the market closing but in January too — there’s nowhere to go. We had to do something.”
Over the years, and in the past couple of years especially, JIFM set themselves apart from competitors with their truth and transparency campaign. Knowing that vendors aren’t always clear about where their produce comes from, Laughters and Block made it their mission to visit every farm, having each vendor label their produce with name of farmer and city of origin.
“Frasier, she had a vision of a market that was different, that was true and transparent,” says Horry. “She wanted to make sure there was no mislabeling.”
With years under their belt on Johns Island, Rogers and Bialas will be the first to tell you how important that mission is to them. But for now, they say they’ll have to put the frequent farm visits on the back burner.
“They did a tremendous amount of research,” says Rogers. “We will strive for it in theory … as we get along one of the policies that they had and we’ll have is everyone has to have signage.” Say for instance one area farm is helping out a midlands farmer by selling their apples for them — that’s OK, as long as the origin story is clear to buyers.
What won’t fly? If someone brings in cheap, grocery store tomatoes and sells them for pennies but proclaims they’re locally grown — that hurts farms like Kindlewood, whose specially grafted heirloom tomatoes carry a higher price. “Unfair competition degrades everyone’s product,” says Rogers.
You can keep up to date with the progress of the Sea Island Farmers Market by following their newly designed website, Instagram, and Facebook pages.
“We are going to have a really good year,” says Rogers. “Ideally if anyone notices changes, it will be for the better.”
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