Mexico Farmer’s Market a Smash Hit

In a sluggish economy, Puerto Vallarta’s Old Town Farmer’s Market (OTFM) is a notable success. Every Saturday morning, thick crowds file past the booths that line the lower end of Basilio Badillo and an adjoining street in the Mexican resort city. The market-goers sample salsa and jam, enjoy freshly-prepared breakfasts, purchase locally-grown fruits and vegetables, hear live music,  load up on prepared foods and hand-made items, and dialgoue with growers and product makers.

“As a producer, it gives you an opportunity to know the customer’s opinion,” said market seller Yael Sanchez.  “You don’t have that opportunity when a product is in a store.”

Charlotte Semple, OTFM director and the proprietor of an exotic chocolate business, said the number of market vendors has increased from 65 to 90 in the last two years.

“We have a very long waiting list. The market is full at the moment,” Semple told FNS. “This year, the market has kind of exploded, and people recognize the viability of this.” Semple estimated that as many as 5,000 people show up on a good day.

Recent strolls at the OTFM revealed an eclectic and imaginative array of products-egg plant, greens, perogies, pastries, coffee, jams, breads, cheeses, pickles, cigars, and organic mosquito repellant, to name but a few.  At this market, the accent is on the value-added.

Larry Dorwart and his wife sell sour mash and un-aged whiskey the couple distills in Boca de Tomatlan south of Puerto Vallarta.  A brochure for their Los 2 Compadres company claims Dorwart’s Canadian grandmother produced booze for Al Capone. Dorwart said he uses locally-grown, non-GMO corn for spirits that already are gaining a reputation across borders and could soon be in the aisles of a major supermarket chain. Dowart and partners also churn out a Mexican ice coffee made with locally-cultivated beans.

“We’re getting exposure. We get people from Canada and the States who look for it,” Dorwart said while handing out free samples of his products.

Dorwart then spoke about one man from his hometown in Canada who stumbled across the transplanted whisky man in Puerto Vallarta. “’I heard there was this wing-nut from Lampman making whisky here,’” he chuckled, recalling the home-boy’s words.

By early afternoon, many booths display “sold-out” signs.  A former Mexico City resident who moved to Puerto Vallarta three years ago, Maria Reyes posted one such message after selling out her glutten-free corn cakes.  “I’m not presumptuous, but they are tasty,” Reyes said, adding that many people with health concerns buy her product.  Reyes said that since she does not work full-time, weekend market sales are an indispensable chunk of her income. “It’s the only thing I have to survive,” she affirmed.

Sandra “Mamma Jamma” Ituarte also credited the OTFM for providing a significant source of income.  A mother of four, Ituarte said having the regular sales outlet allows her to take care of the children, run errands and produce a line of eight jams at home. Mamma Jamma’s flavors include peach, raspberry, mango, and hot chile pepper with ginger, among others.  “In my case, it helps me out a lot,”  Ituarte said of the OTFM.

Semple calculated that  80 percent of her market’s vendors are Mexican nationals while 20 percent are “internationals” from Europe, South America and other nations. In the winter tourism high season that is in full swing, the customers are overwhelmingly foreigners, though more Mexicans turn out during popular national holidays, Semple said.

Open from November to May, the OTFM is part of a regional food and local production movement that’s taken off during the past few years.  In and around Banderas Bay, other initiatives include Puerto Vallarta’s Saturday Market Co-op as well as farmers’ markets in  Bucerias, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and Sayulita.

Semple said the OTFM’s success is drawing the attention of local officials, who are now interested in connecting more tourists in the sprawling resort city to the market site near Los Muertos Beach.

“There is a lot of attention on Old Town, and I think that’s to draw people back to experience the Mexican culture, as opposed to the inclusive (vacation package)  culture,” she said.

Besides providing income for market vendors, the OTFM has encouraged  spill-over business on Basilio Badillo Street. “They come to the market and they come here,” said Luz Morales, a clerk at Turleen’s Boutique.

Across the street from Morales, Carol’s Boutique has also benefited from its proximity to the market, according to the owner. “It was packed,” is how Carol Smith assessed the customer flow on a recent Saturday morning. “Saturday is one of our busier days.”

OTFM veterans Yael Sanchez and Manuel Murillo said the market has not only been an extra sales venue,  but has helped grow their overall business and increase economic activity in the zone.

Located in the Emiliano Zapata neighborhood about a 10 or 15 minute walk from the OTFM, the couple’s Organic Superfoods store has new clients who were initially exposed to the business at the Saturday market. Customers now sometimes even show up at the store shortly after the market closes, perhaps shopping at other establishments along the way, Sanchez and Murillo said. Established businesses shouldn’t fear losing clients to the OTFM, Sanchez contended. “What goes on isn’t competition, it’s an addition,” she maintained.

Like many fellow vendors, Sanchez and Murillo emphasize the healthy and the organic. Nowadays, they have a small plant that producers eight different products for the national market, and send packages on an individual basis to customers in the U.S. and Canada. One of their newest products sold at the store-blue corn pecan muffins-would likely entice the taste buds of New Mexicans.

Murillo characterized the OTFM as an institution that could inspire new entrepreneurs. “This an opportunity to get out of the rut if you work hard,” he said. In the view of Sanchez and Murillo, the OTFM and Puerto Vallarta are on the cutting edge of cross-fertilizing and transnationalizing cuisinary culture. For example, hummus with chile chipotle, Sanchez said. “We have to open ourselves to globalization,” Murillo argued. “Tacos are sold in Japan. 20 years ago, sushi wasn’t sold in Mexico.”

In a strategic business sense,  the proprietors of Organic Superfoods regard farmers’ markets as one component of a new concept they are promoting: “Vallarta Fit and Green.” Their  idea is to link health, organic food and ecological tourism with culturally friendly “market niches” in places like Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas,  which could serve as important points of origin for future tourists.

Already, the OTFM’s Charlotte Semple attributes  the success of her organization in good measure to the presence of similar markers abroad. “There is a demand,”  Semple summed up. “There are a lot of foreigners accustomed to farmers’ markets and supporting their local producers.”

-Kent Paterson

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