Alvarez moves from volunteer to head of BREADA
At 64, when most people are thinking about retirement, Copper Alvarez is having the time of her life. She’s executive director of the Big River Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance, the parent organization of the Main Street Market and the Red Stick Farmers Markets.
It’s a big job for someone whose previous full-time occupation was wife and mother. “I work seven days a week,” said Alvarez, who grew up in Jackson, Miss., and graduated from the University of Mississippi. She and her physician husband Frank Alvarez moved to Baton Rouge when he accepted a position at an internal medicine clinic now a part of the Baton Rouge Clinic.
When the Alvarezes’ three children were young, Copper Alvarez worked in her family’s wholesale florist business in Jackson. “I would go to Jackson once or twice a month,” she said. “During flower holidays, I would go up for about a week. I helped with the buying and inventory and mostly worked in sales and marketing. It was a good part-time position for me while the kids were growing up.”
Alvarez did her share of volunteer work with her children’s activities and the Junior League of Baton Rouge. In 1991-92, she served as Junior League president.
Through her Junior League experience, Alvarez got involved with such other community organizations as Magnolia Mound Plantation and the Louisiana Art & Science Museum. Her work with those nonprofits gave her experience that has been helpful in her present position.
The Red Stick Farmers Market first opened in November 1996 under the leadership of Chris Campany, who was getting his master’s degree in landscape architecture under Suzanne Turner. “His focus was on urban planning and sustainable agriculture,” Alvarez said.
Campany, who did volunteer work at the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans for a year in preparation for the local market, recruited the first farmers. “He understood farmers and farming and trying to make a living out of farming,” Alvarez said. “That was a goal of his, to see them make a livelihood.”
After Campany moved to Upstate New York to work more in the area of land stewardship, Andrew Smiley became the director.
In the early years of the market, Plan Baton Rouge, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the city-parish and state began serious discussions about improving Baton Rouge’s downtown. During Gov. Mike Foster’s years in office, under the direction of Commissioner of Administration Mark Drennen, the state built several modern office buildings in the downtown area.
Working with Andres Duany of Duany Plater-Zyberk, proponents of “New Urbanism,” the idea developed to build parking garages with retail spaces on the lower levels to provide parking for downtown workers and to bring needed retail establishments to attract people to the area.
“People wanted a public market in the downtown area,” Alvarez said. “The state and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation connected together and made the two garages happen.”
Alvarez first came to the market in 2002, when she was hired by Plan Baton Rouge to assist Main Street Market Project Director Sandy Saye with marketing and the move of the farmers market from its first location on North Boulevard.
In November 2002, the Main Street Market opened in the new Galvez Parking Garage with the Saturday Red Stick Farmers Market on the Fifth Street side of the building. Smiley, who had expanded the market to a seasonal Tuesday location in the parking lot of the Unitarian Church on Goodwood Boulevard, moved to Austin, Texas. In October 2003, Alvarez was hired as executive director.
“I was excited,” she said. “There was so much enthusiasm and energy around people wanting to come to a farmers market. I was very pleased to have the opportunity. About the same time, my girls were gone. I was ready.”
Alvarez opened a Thursday location first on Perkins Road and now on the grounds of the Pennington Biological Research Center.
Every day is different. On Saturday, Alvarez arrives at the market at 5 a.m. Thursday is 6 a.m., and Tuesday is 7 a.m. “It depends on the size of the market and how much setup has to be done,” she said. All three farmers markets operate from 8 a.m. until noon. Farmers pay a weekly rental fee for their spaces as well as annual membership dues. These fees cover 45 percent to 50 percent of the expenses of the markets. “We have to go out and fundraise and get grants for the other 50 percent,” Alvarez said.
The Thursday market has turned out to be a huge success. “Some farmers are doing better at the Thursday market than on Saturday,” she said. “On Saturday, a lot of people spend the day visiting. On Thursday, people come to shop.”
She said she believes that the farmers are doing pretty well, even with increasing production expenses. Farming is hard work. It is greatly affected by the weather.
“The thing I love most about my job is the farmers and the people we see at the market,” she said. “The market is the highlight of our week. It’s always fun to be at the market whether you are working or shopping.”
Once a year the farmers elect members of the Red Stick Farmers Advisory Committee, which recommends decisions on new applicants and advises staff and the board of directors on any policies that directly affect them. One member of the advisory committee sits on the board of directors.
The market is what is known as “producer only.” “That means if they are selling it, they have to be growing it,” Alvarez said. “If a neighbor down the street has something, and they are out if it, they can’t bring it in. It has to be Louisiana-grown by them.”
Occasionally an out-of-state farmer has been accepted, but he or she must live within a 180-mile radius of the market.
One of Alvarez’s most important goals is educating the public about eating seasonally, eating what the local farmers produce when they produce it. “It’s such a joy to know that when the turnips run out, the yellow squash comes in,” she said.
She is especially interested in encouraging senior citizens, low-income families and young mothers to take advantage of the fresh, local produce that the market offers. She and her staff do everything they can to encourage SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants to buy at the market.
SNAP customers who shop at the market three times get an additional $10 in tokens to extend their buying, Alvarez said.