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A highway runs through the middle of small-town Seeley Lake. Homes are spread across the valley and neighbors are separated by part-time residents with second homes. There isn't a real downtown or many places where Seeley Lakers can gather, said Vicki Voegelin.

That's why Voegelin, owner of a small downtown café and gallery called Littlebirds School House, thinks having a farmers market in Seeley Lake is not a luxury, but a necessity.

"The whole sense of community, we are really trying to build on that," she said. "It's nice to meet together and see your neighbors."

Now Seeley Lake residents have that opportunity.

This Sunday is the kickoff of the first-ever Seeley Lake farmers market, located on the lawn in front of Voegelin's restaraunt on Larch Lane. The Littlebirds Marketplace will run every Sunday from June 15 through Sept. 14. Anytime between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., people can roam aisles of fresh produce, seafood, jewelry and art on display.

Folks can also dispose of their recycling at the farmers market rather than hauling it to the transfer station.

The 10 a.m. start allows vendors time for travel, she said. They are coming from Missoula, Helmville and Seeley Lake. Only a handful of vendors will set up shop this first weekend, but Voegelin hopes that number grows.

The kickoff lands on a week that began with low temperatures and high fuel prices. The combination is having an impact on an event that's been planned since January.

By August, when Voegelin imagines the market running at its strongest, she expects at least 15 vendors.

Organizers contacted the Alternative Energy Resources Organization, a Helena-based nonprofit that encourages resource conservation and economic vitality, to help get things started. Voegelin has also had many conversations with other farmers market managers.

Mary Ellen Carter, manager of the Clark Fork River Market, advises making the market easy on vendors, keeping it relaxed and encouraging cooperation among sellers.

"I think there are folks up there and restaurants that are looking for fresh food," Carter said. "Smaller towns have made successful farmers markets. And as a resort town, it might be an appropriate place for a one."

Seeley Lake organizers encountered classic chicken-or-egg dilemmas. Vendors want assurance that people will show up, but people won't show up unless there are vendors, Voegelin said.

Guaranteeing sales is difficult, so to get over that hump, Voegelin orchestrated some good ol' fashioned networking.

On a cold March day, she called all interested vendors and local restaurant owners together at her café in Seeley Lake. Chefs and managers from Paws Up, Double Arrow Resort, the Hungry Bear and the E Bar L Ranch attended.

Voegelin called it a "huge success." To lead by example, Voegelin changed the menu at her restaurant to accommodate vendors selling at the market. Now, Littlebirds School House serves Alaskan halibut and lamb.

Daniel Ryan, of Daniel's Lamb, is a Missoula sheep rancher. Four years ago, he took a chance on a new, up-and-coming market. Today, the Clark Fork Market in downtown Missoula has up to 70 vendors.

Ryan has committed to selling his lamb at the Seeley Lake farmers market every other week. He doesn't expect to sell an enormous amount this Sunday, but Ryan is confident the market will grow.

"I look at farmers markets as an opportunity," he said. "Customers get to meet the farmer. You get to do a lot of education."

For Corey Boone, the Seeley Lake farmers market provides exposure for the Alaska fisherman's new business.

"We are trying to get our name out there," said the owner of Taste of Alaska, a Missoula-based business that receives shipments of fresh Alaskan halibut and salmon several times a week. "Seeley Lake is a popular place in the summer."

Boone, who grew up on fishing boats in Homer, Alaska, started the business with his wife, Alison, seven months ago. Their goal is to bring wild Alaskan seafood products to western Montana at the best price possible, he said. They sell to places such as the Old Post, Scotty's Table and the Red Bird - and have set up shop at the Clark Fork River Market.

For the last three years, Glacier Produce, a Columbia Falls-based business, has come to Seeley Lake on Sundays. That's one reason for having the Seeley Lake market on Sunday, Voegelin said. It also allows vendors who sell in Missoula on Saturday an opportunity to participate.

Janelle and Bob Nissley, owners of Glacier Produce, passed through Seeley on a rainy day several years ago on their way back home.

"This is a nice town," Janelle Nissley recalled of their first visit. "We set up there. From then on, we went back because people were appreciative to have fresh produce."

The Nissleys travel to Washington-area farms to purchase their produce. They sell six days a week out of their shop in Columbia Falls. On Saturdays, they take their truck to the farmers market in Great Falls, and on Sundays are in Seeley Lake.

The new farmers market is actually a saving grace for Glacier Produce. A new business set up shop in the parking lot where the couple used to sell, so the Nissleys were in need of a new location.

However, you don't have to own a business to sell your wares at this farmers market.

Seeley Lake residents can lease space to host yard sales, Voegelin said. People who live farther than most locals are willing to travel for a rummage sale can use the market to conveniently sell used items.

Businesses in Seeley Lake are also welcome to set up booths.

"I want to be sensitive to fellow business owners," Voegelin said. "Here's an opportunity to promote your business."

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com

See you in Seeley

The Littlebirds Marketplace will run every Sunday from June 15 through Sept. 14, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It's on Larch Lane in Seeley Lake.

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