by Bob Hicks, the Associated Press
People walk through the crowded farmers’ market on the campus of Portland State University. Every Saturday morning, or Wednesday noon, or maybe on a Thursday or a Sunday, you can see and smell and taste the party: thousands of normally harried urbanites and suburbanites, strolling dazed and happily among the stalls of artisan breads, pod peas and fresh-off-the-tree peaches in greater Portland’s 25 or so outdoor farmers’ markets.
Farmers’ markets a bumper crop for city dwellersPORTLAND (AP) – Sometimes all it takes is the sweet shock of an heirloom tomato to discover your inner farm girl.
Sometimes it’s a creamy goat cheese, or a mess of garlic greens, or a taste of someone’s homemade blueberry jam.
Every Saturday morning, or Wednesday noon, or maybe on a Thursday or a Sunday, you can see and smell and taste the party: thousands of normally harried urbanites and suburbanites, strolling dazed and happily among the stalls of artisan breads, pod peas and fresh-off-the-tree peaches in greater Portland’s 25 or so outdoor farmers’ markets.
They’re not alone.
At last count, close to 60 Oregon towns and cities had their own markets. Many had more than one, especially in bigger cities such as Portland, Salem and Eugene.
The weekly gathering on the grounds of Portland State University, along with Beaverton’s, draws 10,000 to 11,000 visitors every Saturday in season.
Farmers’ markets have been mushrooming so fast around the country that it’s hard to get an accurate count, but one interest group, the National Farmers’ Market Directory, said that more than 3,700 seasonal markets have set down roots across the United States.
What’s the attraction?
“It’s food for the soul in a lot of ways,’’ said Vance Corum, a national farmers’ market consultant based in Vancouver and co-author of “The New Farmers’ Market,’’ a bible for growers, sellers, managers, planners and even customers.
With their shopping-bag chic, cash payments and face-to-face friendliness, markets play into a deep nostalgia for a time when people knew who was growing their food and trusted that it was going to be good.
The markets’ carnival mood, with old-timey music, generous samples, lots of snack stands and a bustle of people, doesn’t hurt a bit.
A strong ethical underpinning attracts people who believe that buying food from markets supports progressive environmental practices and helps heal the urban-rural rift: “It’s keeping a lot of small farms viable,’’ said Larry Lev, an agricultural marketing analyst at Oregon State University.
But most of all, it’s about taste. People who care about food as something more than simple fuel hit the markets because the food is fresh and good. No supermarket strawberry from Mexico can match the flavor of a fresh, sweet, Northwest berry.
What’s more, the variety at the best farmers’ markets is terrific. From freshly foraged wild mushrooms to specialty pestos to rare varieties of apples, peppers and tomatoes that have been bypassed by the mass food market, you can find things that simply aren’t available along the average supermarket aisle.
It might not cross your mind when you’re eyeing those organic carrots or contemplating that clutch of kohlrabi at your neighborhood farmers’ market, but this is a revolution.
“The change has been monumental in 10 years,’’ said MaryJane Butters, the 52-year-old Idaho organic farmer and self-proclaimed “farm girl’’ who has become a publishing-world and lifestyle sensation with her smart and down-home perspectives on reclaiming rural workways from the clutches of corporate agriculture.
“This proliferation of farmers’ markets and women farmers and organic is just fantastic. It makes my heart sing.’’
And it makes business zing.
Vendors at Oregon farmers’ markets ring up annual sales of $22 million, or about the same as the state’s blueberry industry, according to Lev.
That’s still small potatoes compared with the ka-ching at Wal-Mart, the nation’s biggest food retailer. Oregon’s farmers’ market sales contribute a tiny amount to the state’s roughly $3.5 billion annual agricultural sales at farm level, a figure that includes nurseries, Oregon’s biggest agricultural industry.
Yet it’s enough for the farmers’ markets to make a noticeable economic wave, especially if you consider them as one part of a broader and bigger fine-foods movement that also includes the organic industry and specialty groceries such as New Seasons and Whole Foods. Even Wal-Mart, to many alternative-food people the emblem of all that is bad in the industrial-chemical-corporate coalition that dominates the world’s food supplies, sells some organic products.
Farmers’ markets represent a different kind of bigness, a quilted coalition of small and usually family operators who think in terms of quality instead of mass markets, and who are trying to keep alive a small-scale, localized approach to living in the face of factory farming.
“When you do something really big, it’s going to get noticed,’’ said Corum, the farmers’ market consultant. The produce people at his neighborhood Safeway, he said, can tell when the farmers’ market season opens: Their sales slump.
Portland’s Saturday market at Portland State University, Corum said, is one of the 10 best in the United States, up there with the likes of markets in Santa Fe, N.M.; Santa Monica, Calif.; Madison, Wis.; Seattle’s University District; and Union Square Greenmarket in New York City.
Lev said he thinks that might be underestimating the Portland State University market. He has taken European visitors to it, he said, and they’ve found the freshness and quality so good that they almost cried.
One big attraction at the markets is the chance for concrete-bound urbanites to learn a little bit about rural life and feel connected to the food they eat and the people who grow it.
Shane Baker of Gala Springs, a certified organic farm near Boardman, is selling some gorgeous cherries at several Portland-area markets. But he started this year’s farmers’ market season with just dried apples (fresh apples are a fall crop), and people would come by crestfallen and ask, “Where are your fresh apples?’’
Is part of his task teaching city folks how farms work?
“Oh, yes!’’ he said, laughing.
But he also said, “One of the things I like best about the market is all the other vendors. You get the best of everything. I can’t eat this well at home.’’
Increasingly, especially at the bigger markets, you can eat so well from the markets because the variety of products has expanded so much. Now, you can choose from a half-dozen or more artisan cheese makers; providers of old-fashioned pork, beef, chicken and even ostrich; several top-rate bakeries; flower stalls; makers of jams, jellies, pestos and pastas; and vendors who offer fresh fish and oysters.
“That begins to draw a lot of people who hadn’t been interested because it’s been a sort of vegetarian wonderland,’’ Corum said. “It’s a one-stop shop. And it’s very much an experience.’’
That doesn’t mean the farmers’ market and natural-foods revolutions are taking over the marketplace. Americans now spend roughly half of their food money in restaurants, often of the eat-in-the-car variety.
And industrial-scale farming, with its vast seas of chemically induced single crops, has long since made an anachronism of Grandma and Grandpa’s pretty little farm with its pigs, cows, chickens and vegetable patch.
But Grandma and Grandpa aren’t giving up. For them, the past is the future.
“We have a long way to go,’’ Butters said. “One farmer said, ‘It took us 40 years to get into this mess; it’s going to take a long time to get out.’”
Online sites have details on farmers’ markets:
California – www.cafarmersmarkets.com/
Idaho – www.fruitstands.com/states/idaho.htm
Oregon – www.oregonfarmersmarkets.org/
Washington – www.wafarmersmarkets.com/