Santa Rosa’s West End Farmers Market won’t open in 2019

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A Santa Rosa farmers market will take a year off from operating at Railroad Square on Sundays, citing a range of concerns for the drop in business that led up to the suspension.

Low turnout prompted the organizers of the West End Farmers Market to cancel it for 2019, said Allen Thomas, president of the farmers market’s board.

He said that decline has coincided with a decrease in the number of vendors, with only five or six remaining at the close of the market’s 2018 season.

“If there were more people going to the market, the vendors would stay,” Thomas said. “Without vendors, it’s really hard to have a market.”

The West End Farmers Market opened near the DeTurk Round Barn at Harvest Park on Donahue Street in 2013. It moved to Railroad Square’s Depot Park in 2016.

As for factors affecting turnout at the market, Thomas pointed to changing consumer habits, particularly among younger people; the loss of a major vendor who is still recovering from the October 2017 fires; the absence of early morning weekend SMART service to bring tourists north; and drug and substance abuse by homeless people at Railroad Square.

The main reason, in his mind, is that younger people are less inclined to buy produce at a farmers market. Thomas also points to the plight of Leisen’s Brigeway Farms, a venture by Corrie and Janet Leisen that was one of the farmers market’s most prominent vendors.

The two former dental practitioners’ agricultural enterprise was hit hard by the 2017 fires, which also destroyed their home on Wikiup Bridge Way. Though the couple has a few hundred olive and fig trees that survive, they’ll be scaling back their vegetable growing, Janet Leisen said.

“I don’t think we’re going to do farmers markets anymore,” she said. “We’re in our 60s and we were working huge hours. It’s physically taxing to do all the loading.”

Both she and Thomas pointed to Santa Rosa’s homeless population as at least part of the problem.

Leisen recalled how Railroad Square would smell like urine when she and her husband would set up their stand.

Thomas said it was difficult to “maintain a safe environment” on the square, though neither laid blame for the market’s troubles squarely on the shoulders of the homeless.

“Maybe it’s because you don’t have farmers, or maybe it’s because you have somebody passed out on the lawn,” Thomas said.

Service providers operating near Railroad Square include St. Vincent de Paul of Sonoma County at 610 Wilson St. and Redwood Gospel Mission at 101 Sixth St., while Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa provides services on Morgan and A streets a short walk away on the other side of Highway 101.

Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Rogers acknowledged that homelessness was a “huge issue” in the city and noted that it affected all of Santa Rosa, not just the west end. He said he appreciated the farmers market’s presence in the area and was encouraged by Thomas’ plan to only put it on hiatus for a year instead of canceling it outright.

“I think it’s going to be a void that the neighbors are going to miss,” Rogers said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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