Back in January, the four-year-old Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market caused a stir when news broke that it might be considering a move from its namesake home to Overton Square.
The burgeoning entertainment district up the road was offering covered space in its new garage, an improvement over the nomadic tent city erected for vendors each Saturday in the parking lot behind First Congregational Church on South Cooper.
But after reconsidering the move and reconnecting with its First Congo partners, the CYCFM’s board instead decided to double down with a renewed commitment to its Cooper-Young location.
A “Feeling Cooper-Young Again” summer season kickoff event is set for Saturday, April 5, with a crawfish boil, added tables for Cooper-Young community groups and vendors, a beefed-up musical lineup and demonstrations of holistic therapies from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“We’re also trying to reach out to more of the different organizations and companies around the Cooper-Young community and invite them in and have our organization more intertwined with everything that’s going on in the community,” said Nate Folse, market manager.
The Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, with 20 or so regular vendors (the group’s website lists more than 40) selling everything from organic produce and pasture-raised meats to goat’s milk soap, artisan breads and artwork, has made its home at First Congo since 2010. It’s smaller than some markets — the Memphis Farmers Market in Downtown lists almost 70 vendors on its website — but board members said they see their market as different, more of an incubator for small producers. Booth rental is around $30 per week.
“We just love the laid-back atmosphere. It’s really friendly,” said Josephine Alexander of Tubby Creek Farms in Ashland, Miss. The former Midtown resident has sold produce at the Cooper-Young market for three years.
But financially, board members said, the market needed visibility, traffic and a weatherproof pavilion. The Overton Square offer was tempting.
“When we heard they were thinking about moving, we’re like, ‘No, we don’t want you to,’” said Julia Hicks, of First Congregational Church, who said the market is a perfect fit with the church’s mission of food justice. “This has been a cherished relationship from the get-go.”
The church benefits from rent payments for office space, but also through the increased visibility the farmers market brings and donations by vendors to the church’s food pantry program, Hicks said.
In its original agreement with the church, the market was supposed to pay 10 percent of its revenues to the church for its use of the lot. But revenues haven’t been high enough to make that possible, and the church hasn’t held them to that agreement, Hicks said.
After hearing of the potential move, Hicks responded by joining the board of the farmer’s market, bringing much-needed nonprofit experience to the organization and establishing more direct communication between the groups.
Board members said her involvement, along with the process of evaluating its location, has strengthened the market’s mission and its connection to the neighborhood.
“It was kind of like an injection of energy to have First Congregational Church just re-enter the conversation, and then to have Julia is invaluable to us,” said Lauren Boyer, CYCFM board member. “We’re a pretty young board and somewhat inexperienced, and I think the process of going through and looking about potentially moving, it was a huge learning experience for me personally and for our board as well.”
The market is now trying to establish partnerships with groups and businesses in the Cooper-Young area, while increasing consumer awareness of its home-grown offerings outside Cooper-Young.
“I think there’s a bigger market share out there for us than we’re taking advantage of,” Boyer said.
While the Overton Square location would have offered cover, Boyer said it also had logistical challenges for vendors with trucks and walk-in coolers and wasn’t well received by some who wanted to set up in a more open environment.
With its Cooper-Young site settled, the need for a permanent pavilion is front-and-center among the group’s goals. Hicks said the pavilion has been discussed since the beginning, but will require outreach with partners in the community because “that costs a lot of money to do it right.”
“As far as what it brings to the neighborhood, I think the market is successful,” Hicks said. “I think Cooper-Young is delighted to have it in their neighborhood and they love walking over and all that stuff, so it has nothing to apologize for.
“But, in order to make it viable for the vendors and in order for us to get what we need, which is that pavilion, we’re gonna have to take it to the next level.”
Find out more at cycfm.org
The farmers market is seeking neighborhood volunteers to do demonstrations at the April 5 event. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.