Pride and Produce: Bluffton Farmers Market gives fresh its place
Author: Debbie Szpanka
Fresh, local fruits and vegetables were once like the smart, creative kids in the back of the class—humble, understated, full of substance and always trying to help others. By the time people cut through the noise of processed meals, fast food and chips and dips, local produce became the perpetual middle-child of food—full of raw talent, unnoticed by many.
Like gifted and talented students, local produce just needed a place to call its own. Since 2008, that place is the Bluffton Farmers Market.
“The main ingredient in our recipe of success is that each market is an event,” said Ed McCullough, founder of the Bluffton Farmers Market. “One farmer told me he used to sell vegetables on the side of the road. He now says he sells 25 times the quantity because of the farmers market. It’s the same farmer, the same vegetables, the same town; the only difference is that the market gave his products an event.”
The other main reason why the market is so successful is the Town of Bluffton, McCullough said. “The market embodies the spirit which we intended.”
Up against stacks of paper and local ordinances on Hilton Head Island, McCullough took his original concept for the market to the Town of Bluffton where the red carpet was rolled out. “Everyone to whom we presented the idea was awesome,” he said. Four short years later, the Bluffton Farmers Market was voted the best in the state, and the American Farmland Trust ranked it 19th in the nation.
The market is open every Thursday year-round except Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. During the season, which is late March through October, the market is open from 2-7 p.m. From October to December 19, it is open 2-6 p.m. During the winter months, January through mid-March, the hours are noon to 4 p.m. Every market is held on Calhoun Street, which is the artsy, funky “Main Street” of Bluffton.
Besides it being a distinctively Bluffton event with nearly 40 vendors, live music, chef demonstrations, gardening presentations, and prepared food, the market is also a big tourist draw.
“During the season, we see more than 2,000 people travel through the market on any given Thursday, and a good majority of them are tourists staying on Hilton Head,” said Kim Viljac, market manager. “Many tourists love to come back and catch up with the guy who makes gumbo or their favorite farmer.”
Viljac added that many residents are making Thursdays their night to socialize and grab dinner at the market since there are always crab cakes, Lowcountry comfort food, homemade soups and dumplings ready to eat. “In many ways, the Bluffton Farmers Market is like sitting down at the table with your extended family. People with many different interests and lifestyles come together over our shared love of food.”
On any given Thursday, the area top chefs are searching the bins alongside people who are receiving government assistance. Mary, who prefers not to give her last name, takes care of her 11-year-old granddaughter, who receives vouchers from the program, Backpack Buddies, to purchase produce during the summer months.
“We love the tomatoes; they are the biggest we have ever seen.” Mary said. “It’s also nice to have plums and peaches during the summer. Knowing that they are grown here makes it even better. Without the vouchers, we probably wouldn’t buy fresh produce as much since we are on a fixed income.”
Darren Macioszek, co-owner of Fiddlehead Pizza, is also searching for the best the season has to offer. The second most popular item on his menu, the 600-degree potatoes, are from Yahveh Farms of Jasper County—also one of the vendors at the market.
According to Macioszek, what he finds at the market, especially at the cusp of a new season, inspires his specials. Macioszek is known for putting a vegetable or salad items on top of his pizzas. Most of those untraditional pizza additions, such as Brussels sprouts, quail eggs and other vegetables are items he just picked up from the market’s local farmers.
“It makes sense to shop there. This is Bluffton; we are our brothers’ keepers. Besides the freshness and knowing that is it local, it’s just makes sense to give our business to our neighbors,” he said.
The spirit of supporting neighbors’ businesses has helped Bill and Linda Douglas ooze cash from their chocolate delicacies. A chocolatier for more than 30 years and semi-retired, Linda started back in the kitchen. Now, their business, Chocolates & Sweets, has her working 60-plus hours most weeks.
“To us, the Farmers Market is a marketing machine. Our business has grown unbelievably since being at the market,” Bill Douglas said. “Now, Linda is supplying dealers, high-end hotels and weddings, and all of our business has been due to the networking from the market.”
McCullough, who doesn’t live in Bluffton, said he was recently having a cup of coffee when a man approached him just to thank him for starting the market.
“This man said Bluffton is always referring to its ‘State of Mind,’ and he said I magically took that reference and brought it to life among fruits and vegetables.”