Spokane Journal of Business

Farmers-only market blossoms

Spokane Farmers’ Market

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A downtown parking lot might seem to be an unlikely place to find a taste of life on the farm, but twice a week from May to October, the First Covenant Church parking lot near the southwest corner of Division and Second fills with farmers and their bounty.


Each Wednesday and Saturday, the Spokane Farmers Market there features locally grown produce fresh from the farm. The markets offerings constantly change depending on whats ripe and ready in the fields, says Brent Olsen, president of the Spokane Farmers Market Association, a nonprofit group that operates the market.


On a recent market day, shoppers could select from bundles of bright carrots and beets, baskets of onions, bunches of fresh lettuce and herbs, bins of more than a dozen varieties of potatoes, boxes of plump peaches and apricots, bags of succulent huckleberries, and bouquets of colorful cut flowers.


This is a true farmers market, where people can buy directly from farmers, says Olsen, who grows 27 varieties of potatoes, as well as carrots, beets, greens, herbs, and more on his dryland farm near Colville.


The Spokane Farmers Market was organized two years ago by six farmers who were disillusioned with Spokanes other public market, the Spokane MarketPlace, which had been forced to move several times and allows produce brokerswho buy rather than grow foodand vendors who sell non-produce items to market their goods alongside growers, Olsen says. The organizers of the new market wanted a growers cooperative that gave small farmers the opportunity to boost their incomes by selling goods at a market dedicated to their products, he says.


The association filed with the state as a nonprofit corporation in hopes that status could help it secure a grant, which it likely would use to hire someone to handle marketing and advertising, Olsen says. Currently the associations administrative functions are run entirely by working farmers who volunteer.


The Spokane Farmers Market is the only farmers market in the state run by growers and not a market manager, Olsen says. The association is dedicated to operating a producers-only market and doesnt allow any resellers to participate, he says. Its also a member of the Washington State Farmers Association, which sets guidelines for who can sell what types of goods at member farmers markets.


Olsen begins preparing for each market day the night before, often working until midnight or 1 a.m. to pick fresh vegetables, pack them into coolers, and load them on his pickup truck. He gets up at 3:30 in the morning to make the two-hour drive into Spokane, where he meets with the market associations other officers at an early-morning meeting to attend to the organizations business.


They also plan the layout for the days market, draw out booth spaces on the parking lot with chalk lines, hang banners, place signs and bunches of balloons on nearby street corners, and set up their own booths. Before the market opens at 8 a.m., Olsen greets new vendors and tells them about marketplace logistics, such as where to find water and electricity.


The Spokane Farmers Market usually has nine to 12 vendors selling their produce, flowers, and baked goods each Wednesday, and 13 to 17 vendors each Saturday, Olsen says. Farmers who grow a variety of crops bring their produce to most market days, while those who specialize in just one crop, such as raspberries, melons, or apples, only come for short periods when theyre harvesting those items. Vendors pay a $10 fee each time they set up a booth, and everyone who participates automatically becomes a member of the association.


Over the course of this market season, about 45 different farmers are expected to sell their goods at the Spokane Farmers market, up from 26 last summer, which was the markets first season. Olsen says. He would like to see the number of farmers participating in the market double again in the next several years, and in the next two to five years, he hopes the market can open satellite markets in neighborhoods around Spokane.


Growing a thriving market can be something of a Catch-22, however, as a market needs a large number of vendors to attract customers, but must have a strong base of regular customers to draw vendors, he says.


Last year, overall sales at the market totaled more than $82,000, and sales are expected to more than double this year, Olsen says. I see the opportunity to make money by selling directly to the public, and I hope others take advantage of it.


Olsen says he generates about 20 percent of his farms revenues through sales at farmers markets. He also delivers to grocers, restaurants, and individuals, and ships specialty packs of gourmet varieties of potatoes to customers nationwide.


Small farms typically put their emphasis either on selling directly to customers or wholesaling, but with low prices for agricultural products, even growers with wholesale packing operations are choosing to supplement their incomes through farmers markets, Olsen says. The Spokane Farmers Market draws small farmers who grow vegetables in Spokane, Stevens, Lincoln, and Pend Oreille counties, fruit growers from Greenbluff, Hmong families who have large gardens in Spokane and harvest wild huckleberries in the forest, producers from across the Columbia Basin, and even a few North Idaho farmers, he says.


Customers also come to the market from many walks of life, Olsen says. Medical professionals from the South Hill, businesspeople from the city core, and low-income residents and transients from downtown neighborhoods are among the clientele. Chefs and caterers also frequent the market to scope out quality fresh ingredients and connect with the growers who can supply them, he says.


Brochures placed at tourist information sites help attract travelers who are looking for a taste of the community. Market day is an event for retirees who want the fresh tastes they remember from the days most food was homegrown and for families with youngsters who enjoy the excitement of attending a market and learning about crops from a grower.


The markets customers can find varieties of produce, like fresh huckleberries or 27 types of potatoes, that often arent available at supermarkets, Olsen says. Fruits and vegetables at the farmers market are harvested ripe from local fields just hours before theyre sold, so they are fresher and of higher quality than grocery store produce that customarily is picked before ripening fully so it can be shipped thousands of miles, he contends.


The market association didnt have the time and resources to open in a building, so sought an urban lot that would be easy for vendors and customers to find, Olsen says. The First Covenant Church lot fit the bill, and the pastor and congregation have been supportive, providing space, water, electricity, a storage shed, and an end-of-the-season gathering last year for growers and church members to celebrate the markets success, he says. The market brings vitality to what is otherwise an empty parking lot for much of the week and is a positive addition to the downtown neighborhood, Olsen claims.


The market also has teamed with the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program (SNAP) and the West Central Community Center to offer a nutrition program to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to participants in the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The West Central WIC Clinic gives WIC recipients $20 worth of vouchers for use at the farmers market, and provides transportation for them to the market. Farmers who accept the vouchers then are reimbursed by SNAP.

  • Anita Burke

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