Farmers' markets help growers thrive

Published online: Jul 23, 2013
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When Kurt Tonnemaker first set up a stand at a Seattle farmers' market in 1992, he brought apples, cherries, peaches and pears from his family farm in Royal City, 150 miles to the east.

He found plenty of buyers for his produce, and that's about the only thing that hasn't changed in 20 years. That one foray to the market has grown to three truckloads across the Cascades every week, soon to be five loads.

He sells a half-million pounds a year at 19 farmers' markets from Puget Sound through Central Washington and Idaho.

Tonnemaker and his brother, Kole, still farm the same 126 acres that has been in their family for more than a century, but they have greatly diversified their operation, adding melons, tomatoes and peppers to their crop mix.

"We now grow 500 different things," Kurt Tonnemaker said. "We've got 300 varieties of peppers, both sweet and hot. We've got 100,000 plants in the ground in just peppers."

The number of farmers' market has also grown dramatically. Karen Kinney, executive director of the Washington State Farmers' Market Association, said 34 markets were operating in the state in 1992. Now there are more than 150.

The same phenomenon shows up across the country. When the USDA published its first national directory in 1994, it listed 1,755 markets. In 2012, there were more than 7,800, an increase of 9.6 percent over the year before.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has described the role markets play "in developing local and regional food systems that support the sustainability of family farms, revitalize communities and provide opportunities for farmers and consumers to interact."

People who shop at farmers' markets have 15 to 20 social interactions per visit, while they would only have one or two at a grocery store, said Jen O'Brien, interim executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition. The national advocacy group also found that for every $100 spent at a farmers' market, $62 stays in the local economy and $99 stays in-state.

Most markets offer not only fresh vegetables, but also baked goods, canned and preserved food, cheese, crafts, cut flowers, eggs, fish, fruits, herbs, honey, maple syrup, meat, nuts, plants in containers, poultry, soap, trees and shrubs, and wine, beer and cider.

Urban areas often have a wide selection of farmers' markets. New York City has more than 70; Los Angeles has more than 30, including the Los Angeles Farmers' Market, which started in 1934.

Tonnemaker, like many vendors, manages his farm organically. When he started, there weren't many organic farmers.

"I was using IPM (integrated pest management) at the time, but people didn't really understand that," he said.

Transitioning to organic "has really helped us out, and we try to charge really reasonable prices."

But he senses that buyers place more emphasis on local than on organic.

"A lot of people are more conscious about the farming footprint, how far food is traveling," he said. "Some people are tying their diet to a specific farm or area, and they seem to be really happy with it. They develop a relationship with who's growing their food. That's the way it was 150 years ago."

Western markets

As of July 12, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service counted:

* 730 farmers' markets in California.

* 65 in Idaho.

* 170 in Oregon.

* 150 in Washington.