ST. LUCIE — When Anita Neal, an environmental horticulture agent at UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie County, saw the need for better access to fresh, local produce for the community, she thought of a community garden.
She invited local leaders to share their thoughts and that led to the development of a much more ambitious project — the Fort Pierce Downtown Farmers Market. That was 26 years ago. A year later, the market opened with its first 25 vendors.
“From the very beginning, organizers we were adamant that this market focus on agricultural product offerings,” said Neal.
On Saturday, Neal and the founders of the Fort Pierce Downtown Farmers Market will celebrate the silver anniversary of the inception of the open-air market – now a popular year-round destination for thousands of community residents and visitors to the area.
From 8 a.m. to noon, attendees will enjoy live music by SoulJam and more than 50 vendors focused on produce, prepared food and products grown or made locally. To mark the celebration, attendees can purchase a commemorative bag and other artwork created by local artist Barbara Lyons. Commemorative cookies, designed by vendor Cookie Monsters, will be distributed to the first 500 attendees at 10 a.m. by founding members, including Neal and the market’s board of directors.
Located at 101 Melody Lane along the scenic Indian River in Historic Downtown Fort Pierce at Marina Square, the farmers market sits just across from the Fort Pierce Branch Library. There is plenty of free parking at the Avenue A parking garage next to City Hall. A free shuttle provides stops every 15 minutes throughout the market every Saturday.
Neal, now the director of the UF/IFAS Southeast Extension District overseeing 12 county Extension offices, has seen the fruits of her and the other founder’s labor grow through the years. The original plan was to create a community garden, but plans changed when they discovered they could have a bigger impact with a market.
“We projected we would have 12 vendors that first year with hopes for 25,” said Neal. “The market now has three times that number of vendors.”
The market started before Marina Square was built, and for several years was held on the grassy and often muddy space in front of the seawall in downtown Fort Pierce. Over the years, the market has been held in parking lots and other public sites such as Lawnwood Sports Complex. During the height of the Covid pandemic, whether rain or shine, the market gave vendors and consumers a safe way to sell and buy goods as a drive-thru during a time when the safety and supply chain challenges restricted commerce.
“A lot of us count on the organic veggies, the specialty jams and syrups and unique food offerings for our weekly groceries; others love being able to showcase local products when giving gifts,” said Carol Roberts, UF/IFAS Extension St. Lucie agent specializing in community resource development. “No matter the reason we go, we all appreciate this weekly event.”
Over the years, live bands debuted at the Saturday market, while growers and food cottage businesses made their start and gained loyal fans and repeating customers. Several events and activities were added to the market to promote additional engagement that included contests and exhibits.
The market has been a catalyst for job creation, business growth and improved commerce, explained Neal. “Even the Fort Pierce Branch Library, across the street at 101 Melody Lane, has reported increased patronage during the market’s hours.”
Neal expects the market to continue to grow.
“In the next 25 years, I hope that some of the events like the Iron Chef competitions are offered again,” she said. “I would also like to see more educational opportunities and more support for local producers.”