Kaly Hess and Brian Wirack were staples at the Clark Fork Market in Missoula for a decade. 

Starting in 2010, the two owners of Harlequin Produce, a certified organic vegetable farm, devoted every Saturday from mid-May to late October to the farmers market. 

They would load up a truck with produce from their property, first in Dixon and now in Arlee. Then they would carefully arrange produce to heighten its appeal to customers and spend the next eight hours hustling to keep up with the usual steady flow of people wanting to buy their vegetables or ask questions about growing practices. 

“We put a lot of emphasis on our farmers market presence,” Hess said. “We were early to the market, the last at the market, and we used marketing techniques that we felt were really important to start to establish who we are in this community as farmers.” 

It worked. Demand for Harlequin produce skyrocketed. Hess and Wirack sold 30 kinds of crops and needed up to seven people working the booth every weekend. 

They doubled their sales — from roughly $30,000 per season to $60,000 — and developed a loyal customer base that returned week after week. Such loyalty spurred the creation of a community supported agriculture (CSA) program in which customers pay farmers a lump sum at the start of the growing season to support up-front costs in exchange for boxes of produce delivered each week. 

But Harlequin Produce will no longer be a standby at the Clark Fork Market when the market reopens in May. COVID-19 upended operations and foot traffic at the market — and all the farmers markets across Missoula — and forced a reckoning for many growers about their business strategies.

Hess and Wirack used the summer of 2020 as an experiment: Could their business survive without the farmers market?

“At the end of the season, we realized what a huge benefit it was for our business and our mental health not to do the market anymore,” Hess said. “It’s been two years [for Harlequin] without the market. Even if we can’t get our CSA numbers — we need 500 members — I still don’t think we’d go back to the market.” 

Harlequin Produce’s story illustrates the potential power of Missoula’s farmers markets as launching pads for nascent businesses. The pandemic-induced departure of Harlequin and other longtime vendors also makes space for new sellers to enjoy that same experience. 

“We are trying to broaden the whole feel of what western Montana is and what it represents,” said Lou Ann Crowley, a board member of the Missoula Farmers Market. 

Farmers market season in Missoula launches the first week of May. It marks a return to normal operations, and a shedding of almost all pandemic regulations. Organizers are doubling down to try to make the markets not only a place to buy produce, but also a central part of civic life.

“We get a wide array of life that walks through our market each Saturday,” said Erika Rasmussen, executive director of the Clark Fork Market. “To me, it feels like one of the few places in Missoula where everybody can just come and belong.” 

Missoula is home to two major farmers markets, each of which runs from May to October. 

The Missoula Farmers Market takes place every Saturday at the north end of downtown. It also runs a Tuesday outpost in the evenings during the summer season. Celebrating its 50th year, the Missoula Farmers Market recently made the nation’s Top Ten list in USA Today. 

Closer to the river, the Clark Fork Market operates on Saturdays near Caras Park. It has about twice as many booths as the Missoula Farmers Market, but not necessarily twice as many vendors, because one seller can have multiple stalls. 

Both markets took a major hit when COVID-19 struck. Public health guidelines mandated that only non-prepared foods could be sold and instituted capacity restrictions and mask requirements. At the Clark Fork Market, almost half of the sellers didn’t participate in the market in 2020. Like the folks at Harlequin Produce, a number of longtime vendors opted not to return, having built up their customer base enough to survive without the market. 

“There’s no way we would have had the ability to choose to stop had we not put in those 10 years of time at the market,” Hess said. “It was great to get feedback on what customers wanted. They teach a grower the demand of what the local market wants.” 

“To me, it feels like one of the few places in Missoula where everybody can just come and belong.”

Erika Rasmussen, executive director, Clark Fork Market

Going into this market season, things appear to be bouncing back. While the Missoula Farmers Market hasn’t yet reached capacity for vendors, it has more applicants than it did last year, according to Crowley. The Clark Fork Market had more applications than open spaces. Only about 80% of applicants ended up with a seasonal booth. 

Organizers say they’re looking forward to this summer as a chance to reinvigorate the market’s role as a community hub. 

Part of that effort is encouraging a diverse roster of vendors to apply for spots. 

Missoula isn’t known for its rich demographic diversity. But the two farmers markets have become places where people of color living in Missoula have the opportunity to share their food and farming traditions, many of which are integral to their cultures. 

For example, significant numbers of Hmong and Belarussian growers who emigrated to Montana in the 1960s sell produce at the market. Their kids now help them navigate language barriers, and it’s become a family affair. 

The markets can also be useful paths for families, many of whom are immigrants, to earn money and pilot business concepts that could lead to something larger. Kamoon Arabian Cuisine, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Missoula, was launched by two Iraqi immigrants at the Clark Fork Market. 

“I like to think of the [market] as an incubator for all kinds of interesting businesses in Missoula,” Rasmussen said. “We have a low barrier to entry for vendors and provide a huge audience that is passionate about supporting locally sourced and produced products.” 

According to their websites, a six-foot booth at the Clark Fork Market and Missoula Farmers Market costs $185 and $260 per season, respectively. Vendors can — and often do — reserve more than one booth to create more space for their market storefront. 

The fees may be low, but vending is still a commitment. 

Foot traffic fluctuates based on weather. Any produce not sold by the end of the day likely can’t be offered again after sitting outside for hours. And the labor of putting up and taking down a small business every weekend shouldn’t be underestimated, Hess said. 

The Missoula Farmers Market Tuesday edition is a good opportunity for vendors to test their concept, and the Clark Fork Market offers a number of unreserved spaces where vendors can share spots at the market a handful of times during the summer without having to commit for the whole season. 

Both markets require that all produce, prepared food or other items be produced in western Montana, an easy task for longtime growers or creators in the region. However, it gets a little trickier for people from elsewhere who want to sell what they know, much of which isn’t native to the state. 

Market organizers view the local requirements not as a restriction, but as an opportunity.  The markets want to honor their commitment to local farmers and ranchers as well as provide opportunities for people who are using western Montana products in a different way: locally bottled olive oil, ethnic products and baked goods that use regionally grown ingredients, whiskey aged in barrels made of Montana lumber, and more.  

Customers tend to be excited to try new foods or products from all over the world, according to Rasmussen. “That’s part of the reason why we’re always so excited to bring in new interesting vendors whose products may be reaching a new audience,” she said. 

Inclusivity extends to market shoppers as well. Both markets are adamant that healthy food should be accessible to everyone.  

Last fall, the Missoula-based Community Food and Agriculture Coalition received a $623,000 federal grant to double the value of Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for low-income earners when they shop at a farmers market. The markets also host a number of educational programs to encourage people who might not otherwise think to buy produce and other healthy foods to do so. 

“We are committed to creating a culture of belonging and acceptance,” Rasmussen said. “Everyone has a place in our market.” 

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Carly Graf is a freelance reporter based in Missoula. Before making her home in Western Montana, Carly reported from Chicago and the Bay Area as well as from Argentina and Palestine. When not writing, you can find her running on local trails or searching for a hazy IPA in town.