Farmers markets are so much more than cute places to go for fresh produce, homemade specialty foods and handcrafted gifts. In Lee County, they’re a multi-million-dollar industry.

Farmer Mike's booth at Local Roots Farmers Market Coconut PointHere in Estero, they’re a million-dollar-plus business when you combine farmers markets at Miromar Outlets and Coconut Point, and a new market is opening this month at  University Village Shops. Koreshan State Park also has a farmers market, but it’s been temporarily halted through 2021 due to COVID-19 precautions.

As local farmers markets get into full swing this fall, it’s easy to see why mall officials, customers and market vendors are excited.

Industry impact

Jean Baer, who has built her Local Roots business the past 12 years, operates nine farmers markets all across Lee County — from Bonita Springs to Fort Myers and Cape Coral to Sanibel. That includes Estero’s market at Coconut Point Mall, which opens for the season on Oct. 1.

Baer points to a study conducted by the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences Extension showing that farmers markets deliver a $10 million to $14 million boost to the Lee County economy each year.

 “We don’t ever really talk about it, but I think it’s time we get the story out,” Baer said.

According to Florida Department of Agriculture figures, 90 cents on the dollar spent at farmers markets stays within the community if the product is made locally, Baer noted. Using the illustration of a $100 birthday cake ordered from a local bakery, she said $90 of that will go back into the Lee County economy as bakers purchase supplies locally and then spend their earnings locally, perhaps buying dinner out or even a new car.

Jordan Miller sells local honey for Southern Hive Honey Company at Miromar Outlets Farmers MarketAt Coconut Point alone, the economic impact number is $1.2 million. That’s based on an average of 1,000 people coming by each Thursday, spending an average of $40 over the 30-week market season. And those figures don’t even count the additional purchases farmers market customers may make at the mall, where they often have lunch or do more shopping.

The extension study indicated 27 percent of people who come to the farmers market will shop somewhere else in the area once they’re out. They may browse shops at the mall or run into Target or Publix for essentials they couldn’t find at the market.

 “Farmers markets are so vital for economies,” Baer said.

Effects of the pandemic

Before COVID-19: “We were having our best year,” Baer said. “The economy was great. Some vendors were making 20 percent more than the year before.”

Then came the shutdowns. Farmers markets got a break, being classified as “essential services” like grocery stores.

Fresh produce at Miromar Outlets Farmers MarketDespite restrictions put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the farmers market at Miromar Outlets continued to operate throughout the summer. However, foot traffic has been noticeably leaner.

“We’ve had vendors sitting out in 90-degree weather this summer, hoping for people to support them,” said Christy Dunn, market manager and founder of Local Ladies Social Network, Inc. “Foot traffic was less, but they were pushing through.”

When the market lost its produce vendor, Dunn said her husband drove up to Plant City to ensure fresh, local produce was still available for regular customers.

Those regulars were rewarded with an unexpected treat in May and June, when Dakin Dairy — which had been forced to dump milk due to the pandemic — brought a 6,000-gallon truckload down from Myakka City to the market at Miromar. Alerted by Dunn, about 60 people were waiting with coolers.

“We’ve really focused on helping our vendors and customers get what they need,” she said.

About 15-to-20 Miromar vendors stayed open through the summer. Dunn anticipates double that number to participate this fall. Goods will include guacamole, fine art, artisan soups, empanadas, specialty drinks, baked goods, tie-dye T-shirts, watermelon tea, holistic skin care, handmade dresses, imported pasta, balsamic vinaigrette and honey, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables.

The farmers market at University Village Shops, which Dunn also runs, will debut on Oct. 3. Additionally, Dunn manages The Local Showcase, which has four stores at Miromar Outlets featuring handcrafted items from local artists and vendors.

“Miromar has been absolutely amazing with supporting locals,” she said.

Grab ‘n go

Typically, farmers markets are relaxed places where people can enjoy samples, take in the sights and smells, listen to music and browse the unique offerings. Due to the ongoing pandemic, this season, the scene will be more “in and out” or “grab-and-go,” Baer said.

Medeaterraneo booth at Miromar Outlets Farmers MarketThe only samples will be hand sanitizers. Social-distancing signs will be posted. Vendors will wear masks, and customers will be asked to do the same.

“Normally, people will meet neighbors, share coffee, talk with vendors and learn a new recipe,” Baer said. “Now, there will be no seating, no music, no reasons to stay.”

With thousands of people coming through her markets each week, she understands the need to run them safely.

“It goes against human nature. I myself am social and love the idea of people gathering and talking and meeting and making new friends.” Baer said.  “But I agree with it; I have to get behind COVID. We have to implement rules.”

Adjusting to the COVID protocols won’t be hard for Cherie Vet, who runs Cherie’s Sweet Treats, because she’s always had a “sneeze guard” in front of her goods. She wipes things down and changes gloves after every order.

 “I’m so ready for the markets to start back up,” she said.

Hilary Marciano and her baby at the Marc and Barb Designs Co. booth, Miromar Outlets farmers marketAnd Southwest Florida’s winter visitors are eager, too.

“They’re wanting to know if the markets are up and running,” Vet said of recent inquiries. “They want to get their goodies.”

Farmers Markets of Estero

Coconut Point: Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (through May)

Miromar Outlets: Fridays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

University Village Shops: Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Koreshan State Park: Closed until 2021

By Craig Handel

(Photos of Miromar Outlets Farmers Market by Autumn Gates)