A city is endowed with its unique character by its one-of-a-kind businesses. The Town Center, no matter how Orwellian it might sound, is only a conglomeration of corporate chains that have little interest in the overall success of Northeast Florida (only in its massive slice of real estate, sadly).

Building a legion of Northeast Florida-centric entrepreneurs is vital if Jacksonville is to find its own identity — one of invention and creativity. And for those who wish to see the region be more than just a fuel-and-food stop along I-95, Jacksonville’s cheerleaders would do well to notice the venues promoting First Coast-centric businesses.
For purposes of this particular bit of journalism, see: Riverside Arts Market.

The market, or RAM, as it’s lovingly known, instituted a new policy this year that has caused more conflicting emotions than Garth Brooks’ invention of rock-and-roll persona Chris Gaines. Ideally located beneath the Fuller Warren Bridge on Riverside Avenue, RAM enforces its own set of standards on artists, crafters and farmers who participate in the Saturday market: 100 percent of what they sell must be self-produced. Some former vendors and RAM patrons feel the move is unfair.

Prior guidelines allowed vendors to sell 50 percent of resold goods. The market’s founders say the intentions behind this were consumer-driven. At the time the market began, it was difficult to find farms in the area meeting basic standards. This was partly due to lack of demand — mainly, there weren’t venues beckoning young entrepreneurs to get in the farming game. Another challenge was convincing established farmers to take a day out of their week to participate, bringing their products to what was then an unknown market (pun intended).

Since the beginning, a guideline was established that all farm vendors must label items that had been sourced from another farm. In 2014, Market Director Krysten Bennett decided to enforce that rule, which resulted in plenty of bellyaching and groaning from farmers who were heavily invested in the resale business. This year, RAM set its sights on more transparency between farmer and customer by shifting the 50 percent rule to the 100 percent rule — a farmer, just as a RAM artist, must sell what he or she produces.*

“There are people who couldn’t care less about where their food comes from — they’re just not there yet and that’s OK,” Bennett says.

“For those customers, there are hundreds of shopping options. But for those customers who want to know the source of their food, we’re a unique resource in the urban core.”

With the new policy, Bennett says, RAM has an eye on the future. “It has to do with transparency and building the local economy.”

The change is result of a culmination of factors. In 2014, RAM hired an agricultural consultant, Juan Rodriguez. He visited RAM farmers, talked with them about their experience, and did site inspections (something RAM had not done previously). The market also conducted surveys and distributed questionnaires to RAM customers, the results of which showed many patrons of the market were under the assumption that the produce they purchased was grown directly by the farmer — many were proud of shopping local and seasonally (even if they didn’t know any better).

Based on Rodriguez’s suggestions and patrons’ feedback, the move to go 100 percent farmer-produced was adopted by an advisory committee that oversees management decisions for the market. In addition to the new guideline, a new position was added: Farmer Liaison. The position has multiple roles, including doing farm inspections, educating market customers, scheduling food-centric events, and recruiting new farms to sell at the market.

“We live in a massive city,” says RAM’s Farmer Liaison Katie Delaney. “Jacksonville is on this cusp of a massive wave of a food movement. Five or six years ago, it was hard to find anything that was even like a farm-to-table experience; now, they’re popping up everywhere. It’s exciting to be a part of that conversation; it’s exciting to be pushing that conversation.”

In an effort to ease the transition, RAM has focused on a full-frontal educational onslaught. A new onsite information booth allows Delaney to interact with customers on a personal level, explaining the changes taking place, helping customers identify what produce is in season, and sharing news about what customers will see in the market in the months ahead.

In addition, a farmer’s row e-newsletter and dedicated Facebook page update customers on which farmers will be in the market and what they’re bringing with them from the week’s harvest.

As a result, new farmers are joining the market, as many previously chose not to compete with the massive amount of reselling taking place. Prior to the new guidelines, there were 12 approved farm vendors. Now that number is 23 and rising; many are seasonal growers and are present only when their products are in season.

The increase in farmer participation has brought a wide array of diversity — seafood, cheeses, rice and grains, pork, chicken, beef, and eggs are now available at RAM. Workshops and interactive experiences (like Congaree and Penn showing off their thresher to folks who frequent RAM each Saturday) have opened a new interactive world of farmer’s row so visitors can have a deeper appreciation for the origins of the products they buy.

While the new guidelines have confused some, the changes to RAM are generally viewed as progress by a growing community of conscious consumers, and a positive boon for our local identity.