Occidental farmer’s market, feared dead, is resurrected

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Lata Pagare was in India when she got the news. The Occidental Bohemian Farmers Market, which had launched her business, built her Sebastopol house and her countywide reputation for superb Indian food, was shutting down.

Kim Dow, founder of the widely beloved 17-year-old market, which popped up on Occidental’s Main Street every Friday night from June through October, was pulling the plug. Worn down by demands made by some of the town’s businesses, unable to get assurances the market would be welcome in its present location after 2019, she announced “with a heavy heart” on the market’s website that it was shutting down.

Pagare, the proprietor of Lata’s Indian Cuisine, was in her native Pune, India stocking up on the spices that make her dishes distinctive. “I was in shock,” she said. “I told myself, ‘This is not happening.’ ”

Looks like she might have been right. Twelve days after Dow sent out the market’s obituary, a group of business and community leaders declared their intention to resurrect it.

The market that emerges from this process will be a “rebirth,” rather than a replication of its predecessor, said Michael Stusser, president of the interim board of the newly formed Occidental Community Farmers Market.

“It’s not going to be like the old one,” said Stusser, who promised to “revitalize” and “enhance” the market, “which necessarily will have to be different.”

The differences downtown businesses need to see, first and foremost, are solutions to the stubborn problems of parking and restrooms. From its bucolic setting to its sublime summer weather and the opportunity it afforded the community to “come together at the end of the workweek and blow off some steam,” said Andy Henderson, owner of Confluence Farm in Sebastopol and treasurer on the market’s new interim board, there was something “magical” about Dow’s creation.

But the popularity of the market, which on good nights drew 800 or 900 people, ensured that many of the downtown’s parking spots were filled on Friday nights, long a source of grumbling from Occidental business owners. Although Dow spent $3,500 each summer to rent a pair of portable restrooms, marketgoers still made frequent use of facilities in downtown businesses. Illicit lavatory visits are no laughing matter to residents of Occidental, who pay some of highest sewer fees in the state.

“There’s a reticence for individual businesses to speak up about these problems, because they don’t want to be vilified for getting rid of a beloved community” institution, said Russian River Chamber of Commerce president Elise VanDyne, who helped launch the recently formed Bohemian Corridor Business Alliance, which includes some of those Occidental businesses.

Other issues: trash left by behind by market patrons and safety. Last year, a child darted into traffic at the market and was hit by a car. The youngster survived.

“It was the first accident we’ve had in 17 years,” said Dow, who was then asked to come up with a metal barricade to place between the market and the street.

Among the more audacious options being put forth: moving the market several blocks south, where parking is more ample, and moving it to Thursday night.

“People come from all over for this market,” said VanDyne, who believes those folks would show up “just as much on Thursday night as they did on Friday night.”

Stusser, the owner of Occidental’s Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary, who could be seen at last Saturday’s Fools Parade in Occidental, collecting email addresses, isn’t ready to discuss specific options.

“Right now we’re just inventorying different ideas, opening ourselves to input from all corners of the universe, putting together a vendor’s list, basically starting from scratch,” he said.

“I know there’ve been a lot of hard feelings,” said interim board member Katy Mamen, a food systems consultant who made the point that sometimes, “when there’s a disturbance, ecostystems can rebuild more strongly. I hope we can make that happen with the market.”

Stusser sees that as nothing less than imperative. Starting with his days at UC Santa Cruz in the 1960s, he’s been passionate about small-scale intensive horticulture, “and what it means for the future of the planet.”

“If we can’t figure out how to provide an outlet for these dedicated farmers who live out here in west county, to sell their wares in the neighborhood, we’re toast,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com

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