New farmers market to launch following closure of Oak Harbor Public Market

— Created February 17, 2021 by Kacie Jo Voeller

By Kacie Jo Voeller

After more than 20 years as a staple of the northern Whidbey Island community, the Oak Harbor Public Market will not reopen in 2021. However, a new group is launching another venture in Oak Harbor: The Whidbey Island Farmers Market.

Sheila Case-Smith, president of the board for the Oak Harbor Public Market, said the farmers market has been a large part of the community, but a number of factors have made it no longer feasible to continue hosting the market, from rising insurance fees, increased restrictions, and a decline in vendor participation.

“Everybody (vendors) would chip in a membership for the season and whatnot and that became higher and higher to cover all these costs,” she said. “And somebody had to be really kind of serious – you could not just be a casual kind of vendor, you had to be a really dedicated producer. And all of the paperwork and bookkeeping kind of things just takes some of the fun out of it for people who just like to grow vegetables.”

            Case-Smith, a fourth-generation farmer from Case Farms, said COVID-19 and its effects had a detrimental effect on the market. In addition to rising costs, a lower number of vendors and increased regulation, the restrictions caused by the pandemic factored into the decision to close the market.

“That absolutely was the last straw,” she said. “We could not overcome that (COVID-19). As time passed for the Oak Harbor Public Market, we were losing vendors.”

However, Case-Smith said a new group, including Elizabeth Agin of Maya Farms, has banded together to launch a new farmers market in the coming year.      

“At this point there is a new group getting going and they have new ideas, they have a new location, they are going to do a different time, so we will see how they do,” she said. 

            Case-Smith said while she is not part of the group launching the market, she plans to continue to sell wares from Case Farms as a vendor at the new market and has hope for the new venture, which currently plans to take place at a new location –Windjammer Park. 

“It is an exciting new place to be and it is a new group, a younger group,” she said. “I hope we do well down there.”

As technology has evolved and more farmers are able to advertise using social media and other online platforms to sell directly from their farms, Case-Smith said there has been a vast increase in the options for people to obtain fresh products. However, she said, farmers markets continue to be a viable option.

“There is definitely an interest in the community for this to continue,” she said. “Despite all the other options that people have as far as how to get fresh food and stuff, there is still something very nice about coming together at a community event, no matter how you have to work it out so there is distance and safety with this pandemic going.”

Case-Smith said she has hope for the future of a farmers market in Oak Harbor and spoke of the resilience of the vendors and community. Case-Smith looks back on her time with the old market fondly and recalls many instances of introducing visitors and community members of all ages to fresh and delicious food grown with care.

“All these different people, you make a positive impact into their life,” she said. “That is important, that is why I am optimistic. That is why I know even though the Oak Harbor Public Market might be done, there will be new opportunities and people. We need food for our bodies and food for our souls.”

Elizabeth Agin, president and market organizer for the new venture, The Whidbey Island Farmers Market, said the hope is to have the market run Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. between June and September. Agin said the plans are tentative based on potential changes and the impacts of COVID-19.

“We are definitely very optimistic,” she said.

Agin, who was a board member of the now-closed Oak Harbor farmers market, said she felt the old market had run its course and decided to step down from her position prior to its closure. Agin is the only member from the prior market who is now working on the board of The Whidbey Island Farmers Market. She said the new board includes both farmers and other community members and hopes to draw from a variety of experiences, such as that of Maria McGee, the board’s secretary. McGee has helped to develop popular events such as PigFest and other community outreach programs.

“We wanted to create a solid board that was not necessarily just agricultural voices,” she said.

Agin said the hope is to collaborate with a number of entities in the community and make the market vibrant and sustainable as time goes on.

“So, (we are) really making it much more of a community space,” she said. “That is our vision while still focusing on quality nutrition, locally grown food and supporting the local economy and the local ecosystem of the city.”

Agin said the current plan is to hold the new market at the recently updated Windjammer Park. Agin said the board is working closely with the City of Oak Harbor to work out logistics.

            “Because Windjammer Park has never been used for anything like this yet, we are kind of breaking ground in a lot of parameters,” she said. “Even though the park is designed to have events, with COVID and the fact that nobody has used it yet, there are lots of things that have yet to be discussed.”

            Agin said she is happy to see the community excited about the new market, but also asks for patience as the market starts out. She said there are many steps the group must go through to start a successful and safety-conscious market and will involve a great amount of time, effort and collaboration with entities like the City of Oak Harbor.

“We are getting there,” she said. “I am actually really pleased with where we are going, every month we meet and have our board meeting and we delegate our tasks to launch the next phase,” she said.

For more information and updates, follow The Whidbey Island Farmers Market on Facebook