Saturday Morning Fever Phil Pagano
When it comes to influencing culture, which has more impact: a tradition or an institution?
“Tradition” tends to conjure up holiday memories of things you did with your family as a 6-year-old that you now do with your own 6-year-old. “Institution” brings to mind places like Harvard or NASA, or even societal institutions like marriage.
But here’s something to chew on: Our 40-year-old Sarasota Farmers’ Market is both institution and tradition. Given its meager beginning as a “little engine that could” that has now morphed into a train that can’t be stopped, perhaps it’s a bit of fairy tale too. And though the market is indeed a group effort, there’s one man in particular who yields the magic wand, helping to shape our market into one of the cornerstones of our Sarasota culture: Phil Pagano.
Every Saturday morning, the Sarasota Farmers’ Market descends upon downtown, sprawling across Lemon Avenue and offering its guests the opportunity to stuff their reusable bags full of items that are handmade, hand-grown, and sold by hand by the creators themselves. It’s a weekly event that has kicked off our weekends for four decades now and with Phil at the helm as executive director, it looks like there may be no end in sight.
“I got involved 13 years ago as a vendor myself; I sold natural-fiber rugs like seagrass and sisal,” says Phil, explaining his journey from seller to supervisor. “When I started it was just a simple market: no music, no marketing, not much local produce, and just a few tables and chairs. A group of us got together and said ‘Hey, we can make this better.’”
And so they did. After a few months, Phil and the group went to City Council and took over the permit. He became part of the management team, made a few changes in the footprint of the market, and now works tirelessly year-round to ensure that it continues to evolve and expand each passing year.
“We really turned a corner once we started offering much more local agriculture,” says Phil. “We made a conscious effort to have healthier options, while maintaining the classics and still providing a range of goods to suit everyone.”
That range of goods is indeed pretty extensive, from wild-caught Gulf shrimp and farm-fresh eggs to honey straight from the hive, artisanal pasta, cold-pressed juices, and organic produce so unprocessed that the farmer himself can hand you a handful of radishes still covered in dirt. All that stacks up nicely beside the non-edibles like soaps, plants, baskets, toothpaste, and mosquito repellent, as well as on-site snacks like ice cream–stuffed macarons and the market’s infamous empanadas.
“People don’t realize how much effort it takes to put this together 52 weeks a year. Music, vendors, advertising, billing—there’s a lot to manage including accounting for unforeseen details like weather and construction,” says Phil. “Plus, people don’t know about the depth of our work with nonprofits. We give them a platform to share their mission with Sarasota.”
What makes all that work worth it?
“The camaraderie,” Phil answers. “Seeing the vendors who’ve been here 20 years or more next to all these young, new vendors crafting their own goods and having dreams about expanding in the future. That’s what excites me: the future.”
Perhaps I was wrong about Phil and the market. After all, traditions and institutions are often rear-facing and focused on the past and, good or bad, fairy tales always have endings. Perhaps the market isn’t about what it’s built upon, but instead what Phil is helping to build as the foundation for what’s to come.
See you Saturday.