Festive, quirky activities encourage people to shop longer


For the Capital Press

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- From dating games to flash mobs, more farmers' markets are promoting a festive atmosphere to attract customers.

A workshop at the annual small farms conference, held recently at Oregon State University, focused on imaginative, low-cost events at three markets.

"Our new Mosier market had several challenges," Emily Reed said. "We're a small town of 430 and our low vendor fees of $20 for the whole 13-week season left us with a $100 budget for marketing."

Still, as part of the Gorge Grown regional food network, the market draws from a wide area.

Reed developed 13 weekly themes focused on why to buy local. She made displays out of old boards and chalk paint, used Facebook and other social media to promote events, took advantage of free calendar listings, tried to involve the entire community and created ongoing curiosity about the quirky changing events.

"People showed up to find out what was going to happen this week," Reed said.

One week the theme was "Fresher." The displays stated that most produce in the United States is picked four to seven days before it is sold in stores.

The event that week was a 1,500-yard carrot dash because the average carrot travels 1,500 miles to the store.

"We had a gaggle of runners representing the supermarket carrots compete against a local runner," Reed said. "He only went 100 yards, then rested in a shady chair with a cold drink while the others raced on. Of course, he was the early winner, only having to travel as far as local food usually does."

Another theme was "Support Local Farmers," and the event was a Farmer Dating Game with a female consumer asking questions of three male farmers she couldn't see.

"Events keep people at the market longer so they spend more, experience a memorable time and are more likely to tell others about it," Todd Dierker, manager of the Gorge Grown Farmers' Market in Hood River, said. "Events keep shoppers guessing and make them wonder what they are missing and how they can get involved."

His events included petting zoos with assistance from FFA and 4H groups, the traditional tastings, cherry pit spitting and cooking demonstrations.

The most memorable was the "flash mob" that grew out of a conversation Dierker had with a local dance instructor. She rounded up a group of young and old dancers and they practiced a couple times. The flash mob occurred in the late afternoon, a busy time at the market. It was also videotaped and available on You Tube, creating even more market buzz.

Jackie Hammond-Williams, manager of the Oregon City Farmers' Market, described the successful POP (Power of Produce) Club for kids aged 5 to 12.

With an $8,000 grant from Clackamas County, Williams designed the program to draw kids into the market. The idea was to promote an awareness of good food among kids.

With their parents' assistance, kids would sign up on a Passport to Health Card. This entitled them to receive a reusable shopping bag, a button and, most important, $5 in wooden market tokens to spend on fresh fruits, vegetables and food plants.

On return visits, they checked in at the information booth, received their weekly tokens, and had their card stamped with the market logo's red tractor. Every 10 visits they received a coupon to redeem for a market surprise.

"The program was more popular than I ever imagined," Williams said. "In July we had to cut back to $2 in tokens and hope the money lasted."

In September, no tokens were distributed, but the county and sponsors added funds to keep the program going through the winter.

Flash mob video

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