GARDNER'S IS PLANTING A REAL FARMERS' MARKET

MIAMI -- While retailers across the country are adopting the trendy farmers market motif in their produce departments, Gardner's Market here is putting its own spin on the idea by setting up the genuine article.Gardner's has assembled and will host an open air market for local growers in the parking lot of one of its stores. It was scheduled to begin operations Jan. 28 and run every Sunday morning

MIAMI -- While retailers across the country are adopting the trendy farmers market motif in their produce departments, Gardner's Market here is putting its own spin on the idea by setting up the genuine article.

Gardner's has assembled and will host an open air market for local growers in the parking lot of one of its stores. It was scheduled to begin operations Jan. 28 and run every Sunday morning through April, according to Linda Gassenheimer, director of the four-store independent.

"We've been supporting local farmers for years," said Gassenheimer. "We feel the need to be supportive of sustainable agriculture in this area."

She said Gardner's does carry produce from local growers inside, but felt it could do more for them. Offering local growers an outdoor venue for their fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and floral products seemed a good way to go about it, she said.

Gassenheimer said Gardner's management views the program as a community service, designed to benefit everybody. "We all feel close to this," she said.

Gassenheimer said the store's own produce business shouldn't suffer too much, since the market will only run for 12 weeks during the height of Florida's winter deal. "Obviously, people aren't going to be buying produce from our store when they can buy it at the farmers market in the parking lot," she acknowledged. However, the outdoor market could lure customers into the store to purchase other food items, she said.

Gardner's worked for six months to obtain the necessary zoning permits to set up the farmers market at the 124th Street store, she said. Space for a couple of dozen stalls will be available in the parking lot, she said. Growers sign up in advance to secure a place; a handful had already done so nearly three weeks before the market opened.

No matter how successful the market is, it will be restricted to the 124th Street store, Gassenheimer said. "This is the only store with a parking lot large enough for the zoning requirements," she said.

"Anything grown by the local farmers will be for sale," she said. "We have wonderful produce coming into season now."

Heirloom and specialty items will be among those available from local growers, Gassenheimer said.

One local school will be selling items its students have grown as a science project. "We want this to be a community activity," she explained. "And we want to get the children involved." To drum up interest for the farmers market, Gardner's is setting up banners in the store and mentioning the market in its mailings. Players from the Miami Hurricanes baseball expansion team are scheduled to be on hand during the first of the markets, handing out autographed baseballs. The local media have shown interest as well, she said.

The idea for the market was raised by one local grower, and inspired in part by the large farmers market held on weekends in New York City's Union Square, she said.

The community response to the coming market has been excellent, she added. "Not one person complained about the project during the entire zoning process," she said. "Several even wrote in and offered their support."