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Originally published December 6, 2012 at 4:16 PM | Page modified December 6, 2012 at 4:15 PM

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Farmers markets: sustaining the folks who help us eat well

Washington is home to 160 farmers markets supported by people who want safe, high-quality food, and to help sustain farmland and farmers.

Times editorial columnist

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My brothers and I had foodies for parents, long before the term was invented. Memories of my garden-fresh, Swiss-chard youth returned as I learned more about Washington’s abundant farmers markets.

In my city-kid’s eye, farms are vast landscapes of flawlessly aligned rows heading to the horizon. Turns out farming is thriving on smaller tracts tended by next-generation farmers who see a way to keep a family tradition alive, and others who want to learn new skills close to the land.

Farmers markets are the link to consumers who want to eat well, buy local and support those who grow the crops and keep agricultural land in cultivation, Linda Neunzig explained to me earlier this week.

She raises as many as 300 sheep near Arlington, and also serves as Snohomish County Agricultural Coordinator. She organized last month’s successful “Focus on Farming Conference,” which drew 600 people to Everett’s Comcast Arena.

Farmers markets work on the ag side because of simple economics, Neunzig said. Most farms are not sized for and cannot afford to compete at the industrial scale that evolved over decades.

Farmers who sell directly to consumers keep a larger share of the dollar. That financial viability keeps farmers in business, and not converting their property into housing developments or strip malls.

Consumers want to know where the food came from, Neunzig said. In a time of massive recalls, food safety is a top issue. Shoppers get to ask how animals are raised, and what kinds of fertilizers and sprays are used on crops.

Farmers markets are popular neighbors because they bring customers to nearby shops and restaurants.

Washington has 160 farmers markets operating in 36 of 39 counties. More than 110 are members of the Washington State Farmers Market Association. What brought them together?

Farmers markets blossom in the spring and disappear in early fall. As Curt Moulton, Snohomish County director of the Washington State University County Extension notes, they are “always on someone else’s property.” Down a closed street or in a parking lot.

So markets must carry umbrella liability coverage, and the association offers access to affordable insurance.

Karen Kinney, interim executive director, explains the association members also receive help with marketing, data collection, federal food assistance cards and tips on working with vendors.

Kinney said market operators run the gamut from nonprofits to city-sponsored programs and privately owned businesses.

So what is for sale? In some markets, vendors must sell what they grow. Some allow resellers. Some allow farmers to sell neighbors’ products. Some only allow certain counties to be represented, while others have vendors from all over.

Selling crafts is a choice, and some do not. Craft wine and beer are making an appearance. Last year, the state had a pilot project for tastings.

Does all this work for farmers and consumers? This month, the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources released a study of economic and community impacts of farmers markets. Estimated 2011 sales from all markets combined “conservatively totaled $50 million.”

More is on the way. Liesa Postema, who manages retail and wholesale produce activities at Flower World in Maltby, shares the excitement for the planned farmers market in downtown Everett.

Her father, John Postema, president of Flower World, chairs the Snohomish County Growers Alliance, which will operate the 58,000-square-foot marketplace, with a 5,500- square-foot commercial-grade kitchen. Above the market will be 220 apartments.

Developer Lobsang Dargey’s project will occupy one square block on Grand Avenue, between Hewitt Avenue and Wall Street.

My parents “farmed” our city lot in Portland, bought coffee beans from Tanganyika at Red Wagon Coffee, followed butchers like rock-band groupies and were devoted to the downtown farmers market.

Spading a garden was never for me, but eating like a prince was easy to abide. Apparently it is well back in fashion.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com


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