Carnation Farmers Market secures new home, celebrates 20 years nourishing the community

After nearly folding three years ago, the market moves to new home at Tolt McDonald Park.

For Lindsay Gilliam, the Carnation Farmers Market has a simple charm to it.

What makes the market special is its authenticity, she said. Farmers who sell there each summer are neighbors. They grow crops on farms only a few minutes beyond city limits.

And shopping at the market is symbiotic. Residents get access to a sustainable food source while supporting local farmers.

“It’s really that simple,” Gilliam said. “We live in a farming community and we have the ability to help those farmers stay a part of our community.”

Only a few years ago, Carnation was on the verge of losing its beloved farmers market, but the dogged work of Gilliam and a small group of volunteers has kept it alive.

As the market prepares to open for its 20th consecutive season this summer — at its new home in Tolt McDonald Park — there are still hurdles to overcome. But following a challenging few years, Gilliam said the market is heading in the right direction.

“What’s been great about the last couple of years is watching the market grow,” Gilliam said. “We’re moving in the direction we need to be sustainable.”

Last year, the Carnation Farmers Market officially became an independent nonprofit, with a six-person board of directors and Gilliam serving as its executive director. The volunteer group took over for SnoValley Tilth (SVT), a farmers advocacy nonprofit based in Carnation.

SVT had been running the market since 2005, but ceased operations after the 2019 season.

“Everyone here just wants the market to be successful,” Jill Farrant, then-executive director of SVT, said in 2019. “We just felt like it would be much more sustainable and much more successful if there was a community organization or volunteer group that is running the market rather than us.”

After hearing the market’s future was in limbo, Gilliam, who had been spent for four years as the market’s manager, returned to Carnation following a brief period away. Rallying the community, volunteers worked on a shoestring budget to keep it open.

Despite the state’s COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the market, which was designated an essential service, opened for a shortened two-month season in 2020.

While it looked different than past years, with no live music as well as limits on how long shoppers could stay, it was one of few events in the Valley that wasn’t completely shuttered that summer.

“It was not normal, but you still got to see your neighbors somewhere and see the vendors, and keep their farms afloat,” Gilliam said. “It was really amazing to see that happening and be able to provide that. It was more important then than ever.”

The Carnation Farmers Market in 2020. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilliam.

The Carnation Farmers Market in 2020. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilliam.

Things began to look more normal for the market in subsequent years. Full shopping seasons and live music returned, while the market finalized its new board of directors. In January 2022, they became a state-recognized nonprofit — fully-independent of SVT.

Yet, while things were improving, another obstacle popped up — the market had to vacate its longtime home at Tolt Commons Park.

After separating from SnoValley Tilth, the market lost its lease for the space, Gilliam said, and was unable to secure a new agreement with the city. With construction of a new city hall near Tolt Commons imminent, and expected to impact its usability, the market was again in uncertain territory, Gilliam said.

Ashlyn Farnworth, a spokesperson for the city of Carnation, disputed this.

”The city values its relationship with the farmer’s market and was prepared to make the farmer’s market into a marquee event,” Farnworth wrote in an email. “The city wants to nourish its relationships with community efforts while being respectful of tax dollars. We wish the Farmer’s market the best of luck at their new location.”

Last month, the market’s organizers announced they had signed a one-year agreement with King County Parks to open the 2023 season at the Red Barn in Tolt McDonald Park.

Gilliam said the move “stabilizes our situation,” noting the park has ample space for the market, while also proving shelter from poor weather and access to hiking trails and Snoqualmie River.

“It really checks all the boxes,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilliam.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Gilliam.

With a new home and some difficult years behind them, things for the market are looking up. Both shopper counts and vendor sales have risen in recent years, and there has been a renewed community response.

The market has retained many of its free programming, including its Power of Produce Children Program that provides kids with a $2 token to spend at the market. Last year, that program served over 200 children.

For her efforts, Gilliam was named the Best Community Volunteer in the Valley Record’s 2022 Best of the Valley online reader poll. The market itself was a finalist in five categories.

“With all the great volunteer work that happens in the Valley, it was an honor to receive that recognition,” Gilliam said. “It really demonstrates how important what we’re doing is.”

Yet, there are still challenges ahead. A market of Carnation’s size cannot survive on vendor fees alone, Gilliam said, and expenses have only risen since they left Tolt Commons Park. The market currently relies on grants, donors and volunteer labor to operate.

Gilliam said they want a more sustainable model and to fairly compensate staff. They also have goals to diversify the market’s future program offerings and expand its season length.

“It’s vital for people to come out and support the market for it to stay afloat,” she said.

Having grown up in a planned community in Maryland, Gilliam said she knows firsthand what it’s like to not have access to working farms. It is one of the reasons why the Carnation market is so important to her.

“It’s such an integral piece of our community,” she said. “Once you see and experience something like that, it’s something you crave. It’s not something I could do without.”

Check it out

The Carnation Farmers Market will be open 3 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday in June, July and August at Tolt McDonald Park.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from the city of Carnation and corrected for clarity.