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Are enough people supporting farmers

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Are enough people supporting farmers’ markets to justify one in every Seattle neighborhood?

Market Share
Belltown and Georgetown won the imaginary farmers’ market lottery this year, embracing the glorious promise of sweet berries, fresh peas and a community gathering place for the summer. Last year, the Pike Place Market created new farmers’ markets in the Cascade neighborhood and at City Hall Plaza. Independent markets also sprang up in Meadowbrook and South Park, while volunteers on Queen Anne created a new market after the organization that used to run the market there said it couldn’t be done. 

Recently, the city of Seattle has even added monetary muscle to its market cheerleading, slashing what used to be thousands of dollars in annual fees to as little as $251 and making it newly feasible for small startups to join the party. Seattle will boast 18 neighborhood markets this summer—following a steep upward curve since 1993, when the University District Farmers Market made its debut.

The continued growth of these markets is an idea as evocative as Herbert Hoover’s chicken in every pot. But will a farmers’ market in every neighborhood really benefit Seattle consumers and the region’s farmers? Are there really enough chickens—and farmers—to go around?

“It doesn’t work to have one on every corner,” says Chris Curtis, founder of the University District Farmers Market and a national leader in the farm-to-table movement. Curtis is director of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, which will operate seven Seattle markets in 2010: University District, West Seattle, Broadway (Capitol Hill), Columbia City, Phinney, Lake City and Magnolia.

In recent months, emissaries from nine other neighborhoods, including Beacon Hill and Genesee, have approached the alliance, asking it to spread more branches, but the organization is in “a holding pattern,” Curtis says. It declined to sponsor markets that wound up opening under the sponsorship of other organizations, fearing there weren’t enough farmers or customers in those areas to justify opening a market.

 “At some point,” Curtis says, “there are too many.”

Last year, sales dropped 2 percent overall at markets sponsored by the alliance. It’s not a bad showing in a disastrous economy, but still worrisome after 16 years of unbridled growth. A recent survey of farmers done by NFMA for King County showed that opening new markets has dropped to the bottom of their priority list. Just a few years ago, says Curtis, providing new market venues was one of their top concerns. 

Although many farmers have expanded their businesses in response to the growing number of markets, the county report declared: “There is a limit to the ability of existing King County farmers to support new markets.”

The Phinney neighborhood, for instance, had lobbied for a market for years before one opened in 2007 under the alliance umbrella. For customers, Phinney is a typical delight to visit, with kids frolicking on slides, and patrons checking out Billy Allstot’s famous tomatoes, the cider from Rockridge Orchards and the fabulous frying Bintje potatoes from Olsen Farms. For farmers, though, it’s been stagnant. The market’s challenges, said a report by the nonprofit Cascade Harvest Coalition, include “more neighborhood markets every year negatively impacting year-over-year sales.”

Nationally, people have similar questions about a downside to the spread of farmers’ markets. A report last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) questioned whether markets were growing too rapidly and dividing the customer pie into ever smaller slic