Sunday, July 26, 2015

Farm Bulletin: Acknowledging the Importance of Markets

Farmers' markets are a vital part of the life of the city, supporting a lively agricultural zone near the urban area, providing farmers with income from sales of crops and giving citizens access to fresh, locally grown and made products. Markets also bring money into the local economy and draw tourists to the area. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm thinks it's time for Portland to do some supporting of the farmers' markets that do so much for their communities.

"As I sit here and watch the rain stream down the windows I feel that it's good to remind you that although the weather outside is frightful, the Canandaigua farmers' market pavillion will be so delightful. We'll be there today and hope to see you there as well. We'll have the first of our new potatoes, fresh garlic, fresh grape juice, beautiful basil for pesto and a few other bits and bobs."

Thus began last week's market letter from Italy Hill Farm. With her impish goad, Caroline was reminding her parents that they would be stuck out on the hot pavement as the mercury topped 100°. With a chuckle, Sweetness was expecting the indignant call from her father.

Canandaigua is small town with a population of 10,500 in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. It is a conservative and frugal town, with no swagger about its being a "food town," yet the town leadership saw fit to build a comfortable and secure place (photo above) to buy local food directly from farmers such as our daughter. All across the country, small and large communities have built similar structures to anchor local foods at their heart. Oddly enough, Portland stands out as a city that has failed to provide this level of permanence to its farmers' markets. Sometimes being simply weird for its own sake is not good enough.

A couple of days before the Italy Hill letter arrived, OPB's "Think Out Loud" presented a program on the updates to Portland's Comprehensive Plan. Under Oregon's Land Use Laws, every city and county in the state has adopted a Comprehensive Plan. Under Washington County's plan, we at Ayers Creek Farm are zoned Exclusive Farm Use (EFU-80), meaning our land is preserved for farm use and other uses are either forbidden or highly regulated. On our farm, we are faithfully implementing the state's agricultural policy by providing a range fresh food for its citizens.

All jurisdictions must review and update their plans from time to time, a process called Periodic Review. Portland is currently in periodic review. Listening to the show piqued our curiosity about Portland's plan and we looked for the language that deals directly with farmers' markets. As farmers, we regard the city as an important market and wanted to see how the city links our food production with its residents' quality of life. From the "Economic Development" section, here it is:

  • Policy 6.69 Temporary and informal markets and structures. Acknowledge and support the role that temporary markets (farmers markets, craft markets, flea markets, etc.) and other temporary or mobile vending structures play in enabling startup business activity. Also acknowledge that temporary uses may ultimately be replaced by more permanent development and uses.

Under this policy, farmers' markets currently operating in the city are lumped in with flea markets and crafts markets as well as the all encompassing "etc." as okay for now but certainly not worth keeping if it means impeding the march of progress. From our perspective, having been Portland residents and now farmers who bring food to the city, farmers' markets should be considered as vital contributors to its livability, not temporary place holders for future apartment buildings and other permanent development. The policy also assumes that farmers' market vendors are startups, inexperienced in business, while nothing could be further from the truth. Most vendors are highly accomplished farmers who chose to go to the markets to broaden their crop choices and customer base. It is a business choice, not a vocational education opportunity, though we have learned a great deal from our customers.

That was pretty awful, but there is more. Under the "Healthy Food" section this fine aspiration is voiced:

"Access to healthy food is important for many reasons. A nourishing diet is critical to maintaining good health and avoiding chronic disease later in life. This leads to better long-term public health outcomes and lower healthcare costs. Food behaviors are shaped at an early age; children who are exposed to healthy foods are more likely to develop healthful food behaviors than those who are not.

"In spite of these benefits, many Portlanders do not have good access to healthy food. These policies promote a range of approaches for improving access to healthy food through buying and growing. The policies help meet the Portland Plan goal for 90 percent of Portlanders to live within a half-mile of a store or market that sells healthy food."

Oh good, maybe Portland has praise for local farmers who bring such fresh and healthy food to its center. No such luck. The policies under this section are:

  • Policy 4.79 Grocery stores in centers. Facilitate the retention and development of grocery stores and neighborhood-based markets offering fresh produce in centers.
  • Policy 4.80 Neighborhood food access. Encourage small, neighborhood-based retail food opportunities, such as corner markets, food co-ops, food buying clubs and community-supported agriculture pickup/drop off sites, to fill in service gaps in food access across the city.
  • Policy 4.81 Growing food. Increase opportunities to grow food for personal consumption, donation, sales, and educational purposes.
  • Policy 4.82 Access to community gardens. Ensure that community gardens are allowed in areas close to or accessible via transit to people living in areas zoned for mixed use or multi-dwelling development, where residents have few opportunities to grow food in yards.

Nowhere in this jumble are farmers' markets mentioned as a source of healthy food, nary a word, let alone a policy nod worthy of a number. So in the economic development section, farmers' markets are a temporary and amateurish activity that will yield to permanent development, and they are not even considered a source of healthy food or "healthful food behaviors."

Policies are just words you are thinking, it is what happens on the ground that counts. A few months ago a fellow farmer stopped by to pick up some sweet potato starts. We started chatting about the changes in our farm operations. He had reason to go to the South Waterfront area and he was astounded by the fact that the city managed to approve a modern food desert. Yes, we agreed, but not just any food desert, it is the Qatar or Doha of food deserts.

Maybe that will change, but without policies that firmly anchor local food choices in Portland's neighborhoods, a key ingredient in its livability may slip away. The farmers' markets in Portland are fragile and unprotected, impermanent uses. Over the last two decades, the city has devoted significant money and a lot land to promoting the use of bicycles in response to the strong advocacy from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. People who want to have in-town access to food grown in the Willamette and Tualatin valleys need to show the same sophistication or, slowly, as the city increases its density, farmers' markets will fade away. That is the clear direction of the current policy. Periodic Review is the time for you all to weigh in and tell the city how it should look in the future.

Across the country, communities are strengthening their ties to local food with permanent markets that provide comfort and safety for both vendors and customers. Yet not single example exists in Portland, a city that could easily support a neighborhood network of permanent, improved farmers' markets. But it needs to change its policies.

If it can happen in Canandaigua…

Photo at top from Canadaigua Farmers Market on Facebook.

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