Olympia Farmers Market marks 40 years

The Olympia Farmers Market will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year when the spring season opens Thursday with plenty of familiar faces, some of whom have set up shop for decades.

Jim Johnson was 9 years old when he first sold fruit at the market — about 15 pint-sized containers of raspberries that generated “school money.”

Today, Johnson Berry Farm is the market’s longest participating vendor at 38 years and counting. His operation has grown from a three-row raspberry garden to about 30 acres of organic fruit.

Strawberries are Johnson’s signature crop these days, he said, noting that strawberry season should arrive by the end of May due to the warm spring. At Thursday’s market opening, the farm will be selling its line of homemade jams, including a batch of spicy jams.

After all these years, Johnson relies on the market for more than just pocket money.

“We do about 50 percent of our sales at the farmers market,” said Johnson, whose farms are located in Nisqually and Olympia.

Starting April 2, the market will be open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays at the north end of Capitol Way in Olympia. In good weather, the market can attract 2,000 people or more a day, with an estimated 250,000 visitors each year. The season runs through October.

Another longtime vendor, Sea Blossoms Seafoods, has been a fixture at the market for 33 years. Co-owner Steve Wilcox will be back with smoked salmon and fresh fish, including some Columbia River spring chinook.

Wilcox said market sales account for about 5 percent of his business, but it’s the relationships with customers that keep him coming back – and it’s these relationships that will keep the market open another 40 years.

“The people that shop there develop friendships with the vendors,” said Wilcox, who remembers the very first Olympia Farmers Market. “It’s that bond that keeps it going.”

The market will feature several new vendors this year, ranging from local farmers to jewelry and clothing peddlers. One newbie is Pure Luxe Apothecary, which specializes in handmade plant-based health and beauty products.

“It feels like the heart of the city,” said Pure Luxe owner and Olympia resident Leslie McNeilus on why she got on board with the farmers market.

In the coming weeks, Rochester-based August Farm will start selling pasture-raised chicken and fresh-cut flowers. Co-founder Liza Judge said the market is an opportunity to show more people how chicken ought to be. August Farm’s chickens are humanely raised and allowed to grow at a natural pace, she said, contrasting her chickens with the factory-produced breeds sold at grocery stores.

The difference, she said, is in the taste.

“With our chicken, you throw it in the oven and roast it with salt, and it’s very yummy,” she said, noting that the breast meat is less apt to dry out when cooking. “We can’t go back to buying grocery store chicken.”