Legislative tour puts spotlight on success and needs of farmers' markets

By COOKSON BEECHER

Capital Press

Washington farmers' market organizers are talking with lawmakers and other policy-makers in an effort to get help from them at the state level.

One issue is the need for assured locations for farmers' markets in places such as Seattle, where development has forced some markets to move.

Other issues include:

* A bill to allow sampling Washington wines at farmers' markets. The practice is already allowed in grocery stores.

* Safeguarding churches that allow farmers' markets on their property from losing their nonprofit tax status.

A recent legislative tour of the University District Farmers' Market provided an opportunity for farmers to talk about those and other issues important to them, said Chris Curtis, director of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance in Seattle.

"We know that these elected officials make annual policy decisions that can have a profound impact on the success and sustainability of all our markets across the state," Curtis told Capital Press after the Sept. 12 event.

With more than 4,000 shoppers visiting the University District Farmers Market the day of the tour, the legislators immediately saw what an agricultural economic dynamo it is, said Curtis, who described the event as an "unqualified success."

"Our guests saw the market at its prime," she said. "I wanted them to see a big urban market with full-time direct-market farmers in a good retail environment."

Last year, the market generated more than $3 million in sales to farmers.

Among the event's co-sponsors were Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Dan Newhouse, director of the Washington State Agriculture Department.

Newhouse told Capital Press that the tour was an opportunity for legislators to see the many benefits of farmers' markets.

"The department is committed to supporting these kinds of direct-marketing opportunities for our producers," he said. "And with harvest in full swing, now is the perfect time to get out and enjoy everything our growers have to offer."

Other legislators on hand included Eastern Washington grower Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, a member of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee; Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, a member of the Senate Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Committee; and Rep. Scott White, D-Seattle.

"(The market is) a growing business model for small and medium producers," Chandler said in an interview. "It reaches consumers that maybe wouldn't be buying as much Washington produce if they were relying on box stores."

Washington State University was represented at the event, with Dan Bernardo, dean of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources Sciences, speaking to the group about the university's agricultural programs.

Wade Bennett of Rockridge Orchards near Enumclaw sells at eight farmers' markets. He said he told legislators the markets keep him in farming.

"I think some of the legislators had never been exposed to a big farmers' market," Bennett said. "They got to see how vibrant and how professional the University District market is. They were quite impressed."

Bennett believes the exposure will benefit farmers when the legislators go to vote on issues pertaining to farmers' markets and direct marketing.

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