Manhattan Farmers Market

Home-grown goodness on display for sale at the Manhattan Farmers Market.

Pat Figgins says she has been feeding people in one form or another all her life, so when she conceived the idea to start a farmers market in Manhattan, she stepped up to take the lead.

In the 14 years since, Figgins has led the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce’s Farmers Market Committee and been integrally involved in every aspect of the summer event’s operations and administration, which requires hands-on attention about 10 months of the year.

She also has been present at all but one summer market in those 14 years, and she is now ready for a little more freedom. However, since she announced that she is ready to hand over the reins to a new chair or co-chair team, nobody has expressed interest in the job – so far.

“This could very well be our last year, or if we do not find someone to run it, we will be looking at a nine-week (instead of 12-week) season next year,” she says.

The idea for the market came to Figgins when she and her husband were regular vendors at the Gallatin Valley Farmers Market in Bozeman.

“We got to looking at it, and noticed there was nothing on the west end of the valley, so I thought we’d give it a try,” she says.

Operating under a mission statement that pledged to keep business in downtown Manhattan, the Chamber took up the idea, formed a committee which Figgins continues to chair, and provided the protective umbrella, administrative support and line of credit that the fledging project needed.

“You can’t be in a city park or food program without liability insurance,” Figgins explains. “We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. The Chamber guaranteed the first few years financially.”

Those early years coincided with a period of robust residential growth in Manhattan, but it wasn’t until the building economy tanked in 2008 that the market really began to grow, Figgins says.

“A lot of people go into vending to support their home incomes,” she says, noting that the industriousness of crafters, bakers and local artisans helped the market grow.

Also fortuitous was the generosity of Gallatin Valley Botanicals, an organic farm that provided surplus produce. That was especially important, Figgins says, because “we really struggled with produce vendors, as do all markets,” because the labor-intensive work that doesn’t yield much in the way of profits for farmers, and also takes them away from their work for a full day at a time on market days.

Through the years, adverse weather sometimes forced vendors to set up inside empty storefronts or in the senior center instead of in Railroad Park, but that option was fraught with its own problems, Figgins remembers. The traffic interfered with parking for some downtown businesses, and necessitated procuring and returning keys, along with numerous other logistical hassles. Once the committee adopted a policy of “let go and let God,” however, Figgins says the vendors have been responsible for deciding whether the show will go on, and the market as been canceled due to weather only one time. Figgins is willing to pass on all her knowledge gained by such experiences to a 

new team.

Fourteen years after its inception, the market has indeed contributed to the Chamber’s goal of promoting downtown business, Figgins says. If a vendor brings irresistible basil to market, the grocery store will sell out of nuts needed to make for gourmet pestos. Figgins’ brother Scott Westphal, who owns the Oasis restaurant, says he can count on an uptick in business on Wednesday nights, the additional customers drawn by the market activity in the park across the street. Families have built the market into their summer schedule of weekly events, as it provides fun activities for the kids and the opportunity to socialize with neighbors.

For all those and other reasons, and because farmers markets are her self-described “passion,” Figgins hopes the market will remain a fixture in Manhattan’s future.

“While this is still my passion, I need to find a way to expand the management team,” she says, adding that her every vacation or summer family get-together has been centered around the farmer’s market calendar for the past 14 years.

Figgins hopes that one or more people who share her passion for the food industry and for community events will step up to learn the ropes and experience as she has “all the joy of retail without having to hire staff or to order product.”