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Vision changes in growing market

Published July 13, 2007


Jason Webb finishes peeling and coring a customer's fresh pineapple. The line to his cash register is short but, judging from the people carrying shopping baskets, not for long.

He wipes his forehead, knowing he'll be sweaty again within minutes - feels like 90 degrees out here and the shade of a pavilion and some ceiling fans can only do so much.

He's used to it, though. Webb is here, at the Ybor City Fresh Market, every Saturday year-round.

The Ybor market, one of few to stay open for summer, started in 2000, although Webb has been involved for just the past two years. The produce buyers and handlers before him came and left, and Webb says his first year wasn't great either.

"I'll be honest with you, I didn't know if this one was going to make it or not," he says. "People just didn't think of Ybor City market as a place to get produce.

"They do now," he says.

Organizers say this is the weekly event's best year, so far. Last week, 37 booths offered specialty honey, art prints, jewelry and hot sauces, handmade soaps from Africa, fresh-baked breads. After summer, organizers expect the typical 50 or more vendors. About 300 to 500 customers come each week, says Art Keeble, who is on the market's board of directors.

The idea came from people like him and former County Commissioner Jan Platt. Today's market isn't exactly what they dreamed of in the beginning, but the vision has changed.

Originally, local farmers were supposed to sell fruits and vegetables picked fresh from the vine. That hasn't happened, and now no one really expects it to.

"It's just not practical in Hillsborough ... ," Keeble says.

Many local farms are so big that a fresh market isn't worth their time; they cater their business to sell to big chain grocery stores. And others are so small, they can't afford to send workers to staff a station in the park.

For years market organizers tried to get around reality, talking to the Hillsborough Cooperative Extension Office and with people involved in local agricultural development who put the word out to farmers countywide.

Still nothing.

"I think we're just beating a dead horse here," Keeble says.

So today the market "flourishes," in new-vision terms, with Webb's goods as the main attraction. He's a third-generation buyer for the family business, Kilpatrick Produce.

On Saturdays, he wakes up at 2 a.m., throws on maybe a pair of jean shorts, a Kilpatrick T-shirt and some scruffy gym shoes. He and his girlfriend pile into a box truck and drive across the bay from his home in Pinellas Park to the Tampa Wholesale Produce Market near Hillsborough Avenue and 30th Street.

There, while corporate America sleeps, the produce business hops with Webb and others buying fruit by the crate. He picks out every apple, squash and mango by hand. Takes him an hour to choose 150 to 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Webb, relatives and friends load up trucks and head to Ybor, arriving about 5 a.m. It takes a good four hours to unload the produce, take it out of boxes and color coordinate the displays. Green lettuce beside red tomatoes. Cucumbers next to red, yellow and green peppers.

Business was bad the week of Gasparilla when streets were blocked for the parade. To change his luck, Webb turned the Ybor City Fresh Market banner upside down. The city moved the barricades and people started coming, but the sign stayed the same.

"It's an eye-catcher," Webb says.

Customers stand in lines several yards long with bags of bing cherries at $2.99 a pound, pineapples at $2.99 each.

About 90 percent of what's here is from Georgia and California since not too much grows in Florida in summertime, except mangos and avocados. In season, October to May, about 60 percent of his produce comes from Florida, the vegetables, citrus and strawberries.

The circle of vendors are more like family now, says market manager Lynn Schultz. They talk about each other's personal lives; they notice if someone is away on vacation.

As people move to Ybor's new condos and rehabbed homes, the market's reputation grows. Plus, the streetcar brings tourists from Channelside.

"As those things around us grow, it contributes to our growth as well," she says.

Bill and Gabi Jones are visiting from Virginia. Bill looked for things to do and noticed the market on the Internet. He'd expected something bigger, but still, "it's very nice," he says.

Joshua Hoagland lives a block away and walks here every Saturday. "It's great for the community," he said. "Honestly, you can't get a better deal on veggies and fruit."

He's married, with a baby on the way. "So I'm cooking a lot," he said, lugging a full basket.

After the market closes at 1 p.m., Webb says he'll take whatever's left to Clearwater where Kilpatrick Produce has a large fruit stand seven days a week.

Besides Ybor, Webb does a year-round market on Tuesdays in Gulfport, too, and three other markets during growing season.

Sounds like a lot? He says he's looking for more.

[Last modified July 12, 2007, 08:48:16]

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