Farmers Market Week offers fresh opportunities

South Sounders have enjoyed such an abundance of top-quality farmers markets for so long that we’re at risk of taking our situation for granted. The Olympia Farmers Market is not only one of the largest and most successful in the state — and regarded by other communities as the crown jewel of the farm-direct marketing system — but it has spawned several other successful local markets.

The West Olympia Farmers Market and the Tumwater Town Center Farmers Market have blossomed out of demand created by the Olympia market and by the growing national trends for local food and support for small farmers. Other smaller markets are now occurring in Tenino, Yelm and Lacey.

Twenty years ago, there were only about 30 farmers markets across the state. Most were little more than produce stands, usually set up on a vacant parking lot or in a dead-end street. Today, more than 160 farmers markets in 36 of 39 Washington counties sell poultry, meat, fish and dairy in addition to fruits and vegetables, and some will soon start offering tastes of wine and beer made from state-grown ingredients.

The boom in direct farm marketing has created thousands of new entrepreneurs such as Joan Hurst of McCleary around the state and the nation. Three years ago, Hurst had never run a small business or had much to do with animals. Today, she’s a thriving small farmer operating G&H Pastured Poultry, selling eggs and chickens through the West Olympia and Tumwater farmers markets.

Hurst sold 400 of her 600 chickens in 2010, before she discovered the value of farmers markets. She started selling at the West Olympia market and sold out. She’ll sell out an increased volume again this year, and by next year she’ll have doubled her business, all conducted through small, local farmers markets.

It may be a surprise, but Hurst fits the profile of the emerging new farmer made possible by farm-direct selling. Colleen Donovan, the farmers market research coordinator for Washington State University, says women comprise half of the state’s 1,200 farm businesses operating through farmers markets.

Farmers markets have been so successful in Washington — generating more than $50 million in sales last year — that more established farmers are starting to take notice. Karen Kinney, executive director of the Washington State Farmers Market Association, one of the first in the nation, says vendors include mostly nonprofits and start-ups such as G&H Pastured Poultry, but also 100-year-old farms looking to sell fresher goods directly to consumers.

Less than 10 years ago, there were fewer than five statewide associations coordinating the local food explosion in America. More than half of the states have an association today, and others are in the formative stages. As the number of farmers markets increases, market managers need the education, coordination and advocacy benefits that come from working together.

Farmers markets are becoming a big business, made up of many thousands of innovative small-business owners, and Washington is once again leading the nation. California jumped on this trend early, with its ability to grow produce year-round, but Patrice Barrentine, education and outreach coordinator for the state Department of Agriculture, says our state ranks seventh nationally in total direct sales.

Research by WSU shows that while people shop at farmers markets primarily to support a local farmer and purchase healthy food, they also tend to spend money at neighboring businesses, creating a seasonal economic power surge.

The state’s Farmers Market Week begins next Sunday. On Aug. 6, the state association will stage a chef’s demonstration at the West Olympia Farmers Market. It’s a good time to check out what’s happening in the powerful new local food movement and to support local entrepreneurs.