Farmers market is for the birds – and connections

Contributing WriterApril 21, 2014 

A few years ago, my wife decreed I do something about the carcass of the old player piano that was taking up space in our garage. After moving to Gig Harbor from Wyoming, I had stored many of our things in a loafing shed on my daughter’s property. That would be until I could find a permanent place for them.

A few years earlier, in Wyoming, cancer came visiting. After 22 months’ hospital confinement, I was well again, but by then hospital expenses coupled with the inability to work had caused me to lose my farm.

Wyoming receives only about 10 inches of rainfall a year, so that loafing shed would have been adequate to keep my things protected had it been there. Admittedly, it was a bit leaky, but I had covered everything inside with tarps. I was to discover there’s a big difference between Wyoming and Washington. When it came time to rescue the belongings, everything in that shed was ruined. For sentimental reasons, I saved the piano.

On a whim, my wife showed me a picture of a birdhouse. It was a clever little cottage-type affair characterized by acute and oblique angles. Suddenly, my piano had found a new purpose – avian architecture. Using its fine wood, I began turning out birdhouses with a fervor that would have done Henry Ford proud.

After a month or so and some 50 houses later, my wife again came to deal with what had become a problem. The garage was getting full of birdhouses. She suggested I take them to the Gig Harbor Farmers Market and see if I could sell any of them. I did. They sold quickly, but I would up with another challenge. If I were going to continue patronizing the market, I needed to diversify from the single model I was producing. I began perusing different designs of birdhouses, bird feeders and other animal habitations.

After a while, this was about more than birds. It was about the people who staff the market and the prospective customers who come to purchase the wares.

I discovered that most traders supplement their incomes with money they earn in selling their creations, whatever those innovations may be. In some cases, a number of enterprising individuals rely entirely on revenue they receive from market sales.

I was to learn that a significant number of items dispersed at the markets don’t necessarily involve farm products. Hence “farmers market” isn’t entirely accurate. There are many non-agricultural items. In the market that ended last December, there were some 33 separate product inventions, all of which translated into disposable income that benefited the community in general. In our new location, at the former Peninsula Gardens on Saturdays, there are more than 40 vendors.

The biggest gratification for me involves the people I have met.

There are those who stock the market. I have developed friendships with people who are hard-working, creative, sincere and – with few exceptions – who share a vast reservoir of interesting and funny experiences. And there are the people who have bought my stuff.

Frequently I get requests to build something that has little connection to birdhouses. These challenges excite me and help me improve my woodworking capabilities. I have met people who live in all corners of the Earth, and now my birdhouses are sprinkled around the Earth as well.

It’s all because of the farmers market. And I have to thank my old piano, too.

Al Bartlett of Gig Harbor, a retired teacher and farmer, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at

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