Published September 30th, 2022 at 11:30 AM
More than 7,000 farmers markets across the United States competed for the title of “America’s Favorite Market” — but voters ultimately picked Overland Park’s community of vendors and entrepreneurs as the cream of the crop.
“The Overland Park Farmers Market is the heart of this vibrant and diverse neighborhood where all are welcome,” said Kristina Stanley, the recreation supervisor for the City of Overland Park, Kansas. “We’ve become a destination spot that offers unique experiences and a hot spot for people to live, work and play. Many of Kansas City’s top chefs shop at this market to aid in the creation of seasonal dishes throughout the KC metropolitan area.”
Sur Mu Na and her family are among dozens of vendors at the downtown Overland Park market — selling there since 2014. She and her family grew up in Myanmar (formerly Burma) but moved to a refugee camp in Thailand to flee from a war, recalled Na’s son, Pasaw — who translated for his mother. Their native language is Karen.
“We then moved all the way to California and then Kansas to be closer to family,” Pasaw said.
Na learned how to farm through the New Roots for Refugees program. Her farm, Mo Mo Ru Tha, now harvests goods ranging from flower bouquets to sustainably grown fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a really good community here,” Pasaw said of the farmers’ market. “Sometimes we will trade our vegetables for honey with the other vendors. Everyone is very friendly.”
The Na family isn’t alone in its praise.
American Farmland Trust and the Farmers Market Coalition teamed up for the 14th annual America’s Farmers Market Celebration. Each year, the celebration highlights markets across the U.S. and invites community members to vote for their favorite. The Overland Park Farmers’ Market won with a total of 12,004 votes. Its counterpart in Columbia, Missouri, followed close behind with 10,785 votes.
Although the Overland Park Farmers Market has been established for the past 40 years, this is its first year competing in the contest, Stanley said. The first place win earned the market $5,000, which will be used for marketing and promotional efforts.
“Having more money to advertise the market, teach the community about all of our amazing goods, and get them to become regular shoppers by building relationships with vendors and supporting their community, is a win-win,” Stanley explained. “Market days are work days for vendors — this is their livelihood.”
The Overland Park Farmers Market hosts more than 90 vendors who come from diverse backgrounds and specialize in a variety of goods, Stanley noted.
“We have urban farmers who farm on 0.1 acres, to farmers who own hundreds of acres of land. We have first-generation farmers to sixth-generation farmers,” she shared. “… We have gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and no sugar added products to help with all those special dietary needs. We have vendors and shoppers of all races, ethnicity, religions, national origins and sexual orientations — all are welcome. This diversity is what makes the market so special.”
Leland Prothe has been selling Prothe’s Pecans with his wife, Slina, for almost a decade at the Overland Park Farmers Market.
“I’ve always farmed crops, corn and stuff like that, but then I retired from all that and started raising pecans,” Prothe said. “… Pecans in the stores aren’t fresh like ours. Pecans in stores are heated and then not refrigerated, so they turn dark and don’t taste good. Ours come straight off the tree in October, November, and then I keep them in a walk-freezer. It makes a big difference.”
Prothe’s Pecans are grown in Emporia, Kansas, and come in various flavors — candied, honey roasted, cinnamon and plain for the pecan enthusiast.
“This is just for my wife and I’s retirement, and we do real good at it,” Prothe said. “We really enjoy it.”
The Overland Park Farmers Market is also welcoming to newcomers. Hannah Pleasant started with the farmers market in April. Her business, Boujie Vegan Bakery, was met with enthusiasm and she sold out on her first day.
“I didn’t really know how people in the Midwest would respond to vegan food, but it’s been so well received,” Pleasant said.
Losing her job in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Pleasant moved home to Kansas City from New York City to spend time with her parents. She started in a pastry program at Johnson County Community College, but soon realized that she couldn’t eat a majority of the desserts she was making due to her own dietary restrictions, she recalled.
“I love dessert,” Pleasant said, laughing. “I really wanted an alternative that wasn’t going to compromise the flavor, so I start Boujie Vegan Bakery. There’s a need for this for people who can’t have dairy or who are vegan or who just want to try something new.”
Boujie Vegan Bakery officially launched in September 2021 and offers nationwide shipping. For shoppers at the Overland Park Farmers Market, Pleasant recommends picking up the cinnamon rolls — which are sold exclusively at the market.
“My cakes and cookies are always available to order online,” Pleasant said. “But the cinnamon rolls can only be found here. They are perfect for breakfast or an afternoon snack.”
Sharing a sweet tooth, Curt Lafferty is going on his second year of selling pies at the market. Lafferty founded Mo Pie in 2020 after working as the vice president of sales at Tippin’s Gourmet Pie for over 20 years.
“I left my previous job because they were automating their production and changing the product,” Lafferty said. “I wanted to go back to the general practice of how we do things by hand. It’s been a roller coaster with COVID and the hurdles with the supply chain, but now we’re in over 60 grocery stores all around the Midwest and trying to keep up with all the demand!”
The title of “America’s Favorite Market” is a community award to all the market staff, vendors and shoppers who made it possible, Stanley said — noting everyone’s dedication to the market during the pandemic’s uncertain circumstances.
“Over the last three years, staff, vendors and shoppers physically pivoted repeatedly to meet the health guidelines set before us to open and operate safely,” Stanley said. “We all mentally adapted to overcome the fears and uncertainties of the unknowns.
“However, this pandemic has highlighted the primary function of what a farmers market is and how critical local food is to both vendors and shoppers,” she continued. “… The market provides healthy food and gives low-income shoppers a way to access local goods — bringing the equality of sustainable products to all.”
Channa Steinmetz is a reporter for Startland News, where this story first appeared. Startland News is a member of the KC Media Collective.