• Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Community that Grows Together, Stays Together

The farmers markets of Oregon offer more than farm-fresh, local produce and handcrafted goods, they also offer a sense of community. From farmer to consumer, farmers markets help to facilitate connections between the people who grow our food, with the people who enjoy consuming it.

“It’s a hard way to make a living, but it’s one of the best ways to live,” says Nella Mae, a small farm owner, longtime market vendor, and board chairperson for the farmers market in La Grande, Oregon. On market days, Nella stands behind her bountiful booth of baskets filled with rhubarb, dried herbs, and bags of assorted salad greens. Despite the ceaseless hard work that running a farm demands, Nella lives in a community of fellow farmers who are always willing to help. Whether they’re offering to share their equipment, their secrets, their time, or their ideas, Nella shares that there is seemingly endless support from both customers and her fellow growers. “We’re all in this together.”

The more successful the market is, the more successful the vendors are. To make the market successful, there needs to be steady attendance of customers to the market—and what draws customers is an ever-growing selection of locally sourced produce, goods, and entertainment.

Fifteen years ago, the La Grande farmers market relocated to Max Square with only 10 vendors. By 2016, it had grown to a record 50 vendors. This market brings together craftsmen, bakers, artists, musicians, farmers, chefs, ranchers, and customers alike. All to facilitate community connections and to promote the growth and education of the local agriculture industry.

Kaely Summers, manager of the farmers market in Forest Grove recalls a similar, slow start to their market. In 2005, Adelante Mujeres, which translates in English to “women rise-up, move forward,” launched the Forest Grove farmers market, fostering cross-cultural exchange and providing education and empowerment opportunities to low-income Latina women and their families. Over the past six years the market has grown, attracting a weekly average of more than 2,000 visitors. Kaely is happy to report that the market adds new farmers and vendors primarily through referrals and word of mouth. Since the market was launched, it has become “a strong, stable fixture for the community” not only for the customers, but for farmers and small-food businesses as well.

The city of Corvallis is familiar with strong and stable entities in the agriculture community. Corvallis farmers market manager Rebecca Landis, is one of the longest—if not the longest—tenured farmers market managers in Oregon. For Rebecca (and the city of Corvallis) it all started at an organic gardening club meeting in early 1991. Rebecca and her husband were invited to attend the meeting, where they were recruited to help with the formation of what is now the Corvallis farmers market. She’s been with the market ever since. To Rebecca, “Farmers markets are places where you can lose your wallet… and it will all be there when you get it back.” Farmers markets are places for community members from every corner of our cities to meet the people who grow our food, to learn about the industry that fuels our state, and to make sincere connections.

To ensure their fresh produce and local goods are accessible to community members with limited income, the La Grande, Forest Grove, and the Corvallis farmers markets all accept SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and are able to offer matching through “Double Up Food Bucks” through the rest of 2017. These “bucks” double the usual spending of market attendees who are using EBT cards to shop at the market (up to $10.00). Rebecca Landis explains, “These efforts make the healthy, locally grown and farm-direct foods we sell accessible to almost everyone in the community.”

Beyond providing fresh, local produce and goods to the consumers and facilitating connections within the community, another important role farmers markets play is in public education. With many farmers, markets, and agriculture industry as a whole facing issues with generational land transfer, it has become imperative to educate the next generation and to promote the connection between experienced farmers and new and beginning farmers. To help facilitate this, each market in La Grande, Corvallis, and Forest Grove, host kids activities. These events help to establish an open dialogue between farmers and the next generation—encouraging kids and adults to think about where their food comes from.

Regardless of the city, the importance of local agriculture to these communities is clear. Farmers markets are a place for farmers and food producers to connect with the community, to share who they are, what they do, and why it all matters.

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