PO Farmers Market says no to nonprofit

Helpline's Executive Director Jennifer Hardison.
— image credit: Brett Cihon

The South Kitsap Helpline will once again be forced to view the Port Orchard Farmers Market from the outside looking in.

In a 5-4 vote on March 15, farmers market members denied an appeal by the nonprofit Helpline to maintain a booth at the market. The denial marks the second time Helpline, a food bank, has had trouble operating as a vendor of veggie starts and flowers at the market.

Helpline’s Executive Director Jennifer Hardison said a Helpline booth “faded away” after low prices spurred resentment among other market vendors in 2010.

“Other vendors thought we were undercutting prices,” she said.

Hardison had hoped a market spot in 2012 could boost sagging sales at the Port Orchard Nursery. Helpline bought the Mitchell Avenue nursery in 2010 to operate as a for-profit business that could offset operating expenses of the nonprofit food bank.

“The nursery is to sell plants and plant starts in order to make ourselves more efficient,” Hardison said. “We have a lot of overhead costs running the non-profit. We use the nursery to help pay for the building, the lights and staffing. But it hasn’t worked out that way.”

Since 2010, the nursery has failed to make money for Helpline. In 2011, the Port Orchard Nursery made $51,000, essentially offsetting the cost of seeds, soil and staffing, Hardison said.

“It generates food for our food bank, but my understanding is we just kind of broke even with the cost,” she said.

The nursery saw a boost in sales in the brief time they were at the market in 2010. Hardison said on the day the market opened, they cleared more than $1,000 in $2 veggie starts alone.

“Think of the ability we have to reach people there,” she said. “We could have done a lot in 26 weeks.”

KC Pearson, the president of the Port Orchard Farmers Market, said Helpline did not qualify to be a member of the market because they operate the nursery. Market rules mandate that a vendor can’t have a store location. Pearson said Helpline could have overcome that rule by winning their appeal, which failed in a close decision.

“If they had been voted in, they would have been able to sell at other locations,” she said. “It was a close vote.”

Pearson, who did not vote , said Helpline will remain eligible for a community free space program at the market. The farmers market has also set up a produce donation program for Helpline, and even voted to donated $1,000 to the nonprofit after their request to be a vendor was denied.

“All of our members support Helpline and their mission,” Pearson said. “They have to keep in mind our mission, which is to support the family farmer. We need to follow our rules and our mission, too.”

Hardison told the members on March 15 that Helpline would give up their storefront location if that’s what the board wanted. She said she believes Helpline’s application was denied because members were once again afraid Helpline would offer products at competitive rates.

“Two of the members actually said they didn’t like the competition,” she said. “We told them we didn’t need to have the storefront. That wasn’t really the issue.”

Now that the farmers market is not a viable option, Helpline plans to keep up the storefront on Mitchell Avenue. Don Ryan, the president of the Bay Street Association, has also contacted the nonprofit regarding a veggie booth in a planned public marketplace.

Hardison said decisions to move forward will take some time.  “We’re kind of reeling right now,” she said. “We’re just going to take it day by day.”

The Port Orchard Farmers Market will open April 14.


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