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Originally published May 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 27, 2008 at 11:01 AM

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Pike Place Market becoming less-fertile ground for farmers

It's one of the most popular outdoor markets in the world, dripping with history, teeming with characters and visited by 10 million people...

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's one of the most popular outdoor markets in the world, dripping with history, teeming with characters and visited by 10 million people a year — a "must-see" for anyone exploring Seattle for the first time.

Yet with each passing summer, Pike Place Market officials find it more challenging to entice farmers to sell there.

Farmers can make more money at neighborhood farmers markets where work hours are shorter, streets are closed off, logistics are simpler and sales are exponentially higher because the crowd is dominated by locals motivated to buy, not tourists wanting to look.

For a decade, Pike Place offered a "Market Basket" program in which farmers could count on selling large volumes of preordered produce to subscribers of the service. But the Market terminated the program after 2006. Without that subsidy several farmers left, saying it was no longer worth their while to sell at Pike Place.

Recognizing the challenges farmers face, Market officials have stepped up promotions aimed at condo dwellers living within walking distance that reinforce Pike Place as their neighborhood farmers market. The marketing includes a new foodie magazine, $5-off coupons and cooking demonstrations that promote produce at the Market.

At the same time, some Pike Place farmers have come up with creative ways to package their product for what is still a predominantly tourist audience.

In 2002, Tiny's Organic of Wenatchee began selling fresh fruit at the Market but since has expanded its line to preserves and dried fruit.

Co-owner John McPherson said the slim packages of dried fruit are especially popular with tourists. This summer, Tiny's also is blending smoothies-to-go at $6 a cup — another acknowledgment that the Pike Place consumer is more interested in browsing than shopping.

"This can be a great market for us, if we as farmers do it right," McPherson said.

Marketing the Market

The Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority, which runs the Market, has issued 83 permits for farmers this summer.

Of those, 21 sell mostly fresh produce while 15 sell other farm foods, such as cheese, preserves, honey and nuts. The rest sell flowers or plants.

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Terri Martin, whose Martin Family Orchards outside Wenatchee sells at Pike Place and about 20 neighborhood farmers markets, said she recognizes the unique challenges at Pike Place but never would leave.

"It's where we started," she said. "And I love the atmosphere."

She said Pike Place customers sometimes ask her at which neighborhood farmers markets she is selling so they can purchase a box of fruit there instead of at Pike Place.

"It would be really nice if we could set aside a drive-through spot where people could put on their flashers and pick up boxed items," Martin said. Making the Market more convenient for people living downtown is one of the goals.

Since 2000, downtown's residential population has increased more than 15 percent and household income has risen more than 16 percent, according to the Downtown Seattle Association.

Glitzy ads for downtown condos tout proximity to the Market as a lure to buyers, painting dreamy scenes of shopping for Bibb lettuce and donut peaches on the way home.

No one can say with certainty whether condo dwellers in any large numbers are actually shopping for produce at the Market, although the PDA is trying to attract them.

This summer, the Market is launching a twice-yearly magazine, Pike Place Palate, that focuses on the Market's food culture and promotes farmers. The first issue will include a $5 coupon that can be redeemed for food at farm tables.

James Haydu, the PDA's marketing and communications director, said last year's coupon, distributed to about 17,500 addresses mostly in downtown and Belltown, was a hit with farmers, who are reimbursed fully by the PDA for coupons they accept.

"That is money directly into the pockets of our farmers, which is clearly a big priority for us," he said.

Pike Place already sets aside Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays in the summer for farmers to sell on the street in front of the main arcade, giving them more visibility than inside.

The location makes it easier for locals who want to pop by, purchase some produce and leave just as fast.

For farmers selling outside, the PDA also offers branded "Pike Place Market" tents. And since attractive displays are such a key for sales, the PDA offers tablecloths and baskets for farmers to present their produce.

The PDA also is trying to take advantage of the synthesis between Market restaurants and farmers by hosting food events where chefs promote ingredients sold at the Market.

For tourists, or farmers?

About eight produce farmers left Pike Place, some after many years of selling there, when Market officials ended the Market Basket program of preordered fruits and vegetables.

The program peaked at about 700 subscribers. PDA staff filled and distributed the bags and farmers earned 85 cents on the dollar for their produce.

The program ran at a deficit every year for the PDA — although Haydu said that's not why it ended: "It wasn't meant to be a moneymaker. We were becoming a food-distribution center, and our mission is to get people down here."

Another reason is that some Pike Place farmers had begun their own subscription programs.

Katsumi Taki, of Mair Farm outside Yakima, said he provided 2 pounds of produce for each bag, which translated to hundreds of dollars each week. Without that certainty of income, Taki left Pike Place and now sells at neighborhood farmers markets.

The end of Market Basket also was the tipping point for Jeff Miller, of Willie Green's Organic Farm in Monroe. Miller said he can make five or six times as much money a day selling at a busy neighborhood farmers market.

"I love Pike Place Market — when I have guests in town, it's the first place I take them," Miller said. "But it's not a farmers market anymore. It's a tourist destination."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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