A History of the Kootenai County Farmers Market

I have been finding my way to local farmers’ markets since my mom took our family to hometown markets and roadside farm stands in Texas where I grew up. I can still taste the ambrosia of sliced juicy peaches smothered with fresh cream and local honey. So, for me, opening day at the Kootenai County Farmers’ Market (KCFMA) brings a lot of excitement and marks the beginning of Inland Northwest summer. Some years, opening day is cold and rainy, but this year, the sun was radiant and the Saturday market was teeming with new and veteran customers and vendors.

Agriculture and farming have a fertile history in North Idaho. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe provided for their people throughout the centuries by utilizing the region’s plentiful natural resources to farm, hunt, fish, forage, and produce a wealth of products. As settlers moved West and loggers began clearing forests, more land opened up for farming. By 1880, there were around 20 non-native farms in Kootenai County, but according to the 2012 census, that number grew rapidly to 824 farms averaging 151 acres for a total of 124,240 farmed acres.

In 1986, a few farmers got together and decided to start a farmers market in Kootenai County. That spring, the City of Coeur d’Alene closed off downtown Sherman Avenue for the day, and 25 vendors set up shop in the street, selling fresh produce and local goods from the beds of their trucks. The community showed up, and the farmers were encouraged by such a prodigious start. It was a heart-warming weekly sight that paid true homage to the first U.S. farmers market held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1730.

The next year, the city didn’t extend the same invitation for the market to occupy downtown, so eight farmers endured the second season in a vacant lot by the jail. Fortunately, the third year, they were offered space on a more advantageous treed lot at Highway 95 and Dalton Ave, where they thrived for seven years. In 1994, they had outgrown this spot and moved up the highway to their current location at Prairie Avenue in Hayden, which Susi Faville, owner of Mountain View Farm and known as “The Tomato Lady”, calls “a haven under the trees.”

Today, KCFMA is one market held on two days in two highly-visible locations: Saturday morning in Hayden and Wednesday afternoon on Fifth Street off Sherman Avenue in downtown Coeur d’Alene. Yes, the city asked the market to return to its first year location and bring its producers back to the heart of downtown. KCFMA is a true farmers market registered with the Idaho Farmers Market Association that maintains a balance of 70% agricultural vendors and 30% craft vendors. For vendors and customers alike, it’s more than just a place to sell or pick up your produce. It’s a gathering place, alive with music, fresh produce, unique crafts, verdant plants, scrumptious food and drink, bustling activities for the whole family, and a congregation of smiling humans enjoying the Inland Northwest’s stimulating outdoors and vibrant community.

“I think there’s been a lot of growth in the market as an experience,” says Ellen Scriven, co-owner of one of the founding farms, Killarney Organic Farm. “It’s something people want to do outside with family, friends, or visiting relatives. And some, especially single, older people, come to socialize with vendors and other shoppers.”

Susi, the second longest-standing market member, agrees and adds, “The experience of coming here, buying something real and good and well-made from the human being that made it – that’s valuable to people. Unlike shopping at a box store, you can actually talk about your life and the products and have a real, personal experience. I think the whole planet needs that right now.”

More than 100 members and food court vendors submitted their applications this year, paid their fees, and will show up on Saturdays and Wednesdays to serve and offer the fruits of their hard labor to generous locals and eager visitors. About an hour before the market opens, a crowd of “day vendors” gathers at the Market Manager’s booth to put their names in a hat for whatever open booths up for grabs on any particular market day. Then, when the opening bell rings, the action begins and doesn’t stop until the bell is rung again to signal that selling is done.

Being a market shopper is invigorating! I spent two months one summer buying 90% of my food from KCFMA. I discovered new foods, cooked new recipes, and built both personal and business relationships that I highly value to this day. Shopping at the grocery store may be convenient, but shopping at the farmers market infuses vitality into my routine and menu.

I am also a vendor and first experienced the this side of KCFMA when my husband, Young, launched a booth for local coffee purveyors DOMA Coffee Roasting Company. I would often volunteer alongside him serving coffee and selling beans and eventually got involved in special events, marketing, and advertising. Now, Young and I operate our own mobile coffee business, Coffee Roboto, at the market. Although the weekly service is a lot of exhausting work, we are grateful and hopeful to inspire humans to drink different and shop local.

This year, I also became a board member, although only in an “advisory” role since food court vendors cannot be members. Being on the board, I have been privileged to witness the heart, soul, and authenticity that makes KCFMA one of the most established, organized, and beloved markets in the Inland Northwest. The kaleidoscope of personalities behind the curtain are also real, hard-working people immersed in the weekly grind and grime. They run their own businesses and booths while tenaciously fighting for a high-quality market, hard-working farmers and vendors, and a thriving, sustainable food future in North Idaho. “It’s no longer just ma and pa trying to grow their veggies and run a farmers market,” says Ellen, “It’s hard now to imagine trying to do it the way we did many years ago, and there’s only gonna be more pressure to expand and get bigger.”

by S Michal Bennett
An abridged version of this story appeared in the 2021 summer issue of Edible Inland Northwest as part of our Farmers Market Guide.