A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


Back to Archives


Starting and Operating a Farmers Market

by Candace Brown

On a sunny morning in May, in West Seattle, you can hear birds sing and smell the salt air of nearby Puget Sound. The Olympic Mountains are “out”, as folks say in a region known for clouds. Doors open, feet descend porch steps, bicycle wheels turn, the bus pulls up, someone takes a child’s hand. From every direction come young parents with babies in strollers, a retired couple, a college student, an old woman with her walker, and the family with school aged kids, all heading for the farmers market.

Vendors tidy their produce. A woman bundles flowers. Aromas of onions and herbs, fresh salmon, smoked cheese, and crusty artisan breads, drift and mingle as shoppers anticipate the moment. Finally, the manager rings the bell and musicians launch into a lively tune. The market is open.

Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark, who chairs the Planning, Land Use, and Neighborhoods Committee, could be there. A “huge fan” of farmers markets, she says: “What I look forward to on a Sunday morning in West Seattle, (or Wednesday in Columbia City or Saturday in the University District), is a chance to see a neighborhood meet up with itself.”

All over Seattle neighborhoods meet up with themselves at farmers markets structured on different models. Some include arts, crafts and wholesalers and some do not. The West Seattle market is operated by the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, a community-based, non-profit (501 (c) 3) organization. Markets in this group are classified “producer-only.” Produce and garden plants come from Washington State farms and orchards, seafood directly from the fisherman, and baked goods right out of a local oven, with never a middleman.

Director Chris Curtis started the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance in 1993, with one site in the University District. Now there are seven, scattered around the city. Each new site presented unique challenges, but the organization handled them all well. NFMA receives praise for its “best management practices” from Executive Director Stacy Miller of the Farmers Market Coalition, a national organization whose mission is “to strengthen farmers markets for the benefit of farmers, consumers, and communities.”

“NFMA is an excellent example of a farmers market which has taken a lot of initiative in documenting and communicating a wide variety of positive impacts, from keeping farmland productive and farming viable, to enhancing food security for the less fortunate,” says Miller. She is referring, in part, to its huge contributions to local food banks, over 40,000 pounds in 2007. These markets also accept “electronic food stamps” (Electronic Benefit Transfer credit/debit cards), WIC, and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program Coupons.

It would take a long list to show all the benefits of farmers markets, but just in terms of their impact on neighborhoods, many examples can be cited. They make fresh, high quality, locally grown food available, usually within walking distance, and connect residents directly with those who produce it. They create a hub where people gather and build a sense of community, host special events, teach us about nutrition, the environment, the importance of buying local, and much more. Miller notes the positives money can’t buy:

Consider the degree of social capital that markets build: neighbors talking, friends meeting, eaters meeting the farmers who grow their food, new connections being made. These are transactions beyond the financial which are extremely valuable and we are only at the beginning of measuring these transactions.

Farmers markets are the nexus of many buy local initiatives, and have the power to help shape an entire community’s sense of self-reliance, based on interdependence with local producers?not only of food, but of goods and services from local and independently-owned businesses. As such, markets will have a central role in the new American economy?one based on real transactions of real goods between real people.”

However, for those who seek to improve neighborhoods by starting farmers markets, NFMA recommends taking a hard look at what that entails and not expecting a quick, easy, or cheap route to neighborhood improvement. This organization runs like a business. Its top priority is to support small farms by providing direct sales opportunities. NFMA markets are primary income sources for over 100 farms, contributing to the goal of keeping farmland in production. Another goal is to educate the public. Neighborhood improvement is not the focus, although it is often one of the nicer consequences. Everyone loves farmers markets but markets cannot live on love alone.

Janet Hurt manages NFMA’s office, but as one of only five paid staff members, her job title is undoubtedly inadequate to describe all she does. Hurt understands the complex challenges faced when working with the farmers they serve, property owners they rent land from, neighborhood groups, and city government, along with hard realities like rent, parking, water, and electricity. Many neighborhoods approach the organization, wanting to start markets, but not all get what they wish for. Hurt explains some of the many considerations:

It’s a pretty interesting and careful decision to open a farmers market in a neighborhood. It takes about $25,000-$35,000 to start, with labor costs, fees, rent, etc., and a year or two. We know from experience what the criteria are for it to be successful. You need community support and interest, the population to support it, high visibility, a space big enough to accommodate it, and you need to have neighborhood organizations onboard. It’s only going to work if it’s good for the community.

Most of all, the farmers have to be convinced. They are your first priority. If there are other markets nearby, one of the things we talk about is, ‘How much is too much?’ When can you saturate the market? One thing that’s really crucial to farmers, and that isn’t widely publicized, is a well-run organization that knows how to manage the market.

The biggest issue markets face is finding available land and permanent locations.
Each market is different and it must be worked out differently with each one. In one case they might be on park property and fees may be charged. In another case it might be school property. In some neighborhoods they are on private parking lots and they have to work it out with the owners. Land is valuable. If the landlord wants to develop, they’re out.

A good relationship with city government is crucial in dealing with these threats. Seattle City Council members Richard Conlin, Nick Licata, and Sally Clark are all concerned with NFMA’s markets. Clark says:

"Over the past couple of years I’ve worked with the Neighborhood Farmers’ Market Alliance to ensure space for markets when new development threatens a market’s site. Several markets depend upon surface parking lots eyed hungrily by developers. New development has slowed down for now because of the recession, but in the city we’re working to make sure our rules are market-friendly when it comes to using street space and parks when surface parking lots are lost."

While starting a farmers market requires serious research and preparation, those efforts pay off in numerous tangible and intangible ways. Farmers markets do strengthen communities. They get people out in public, meeting and connecting, reducing isolation and increasing communication, sometimes between groups differentiated by age, ethnicity, and income level, that might never have a reason to mingle. They offer families a perfect way to spend time together and teach children that food doesn’t just come out of a package. Markets can get everyone involved. Hurt says some senior centers offer walking programs where participants get a token to spend. In every case markets feed the soul and delight the senses.

Farmers markets promote health through education and fresh, local, organic, and seasonal food. It’s good for people to learn to eat what is in season instead of demanding less available produce that must be shipped long distances at great environment and monetary cost. Produce intended for local consumption is grown for flavor and nutrition, not how well it can stand up to handling. Seattle’s Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance offers ongoing cooking demonstrations and information on nutrition, and they have an outstanding website that shows what’s available at their markets each week, along with delicious recipes. The nutritional bounty also flows into local food banks. In addition to outright donations, NFMA cooperates with other programs, one of which Hurt explains: “Some food banks get grant funding to print ‘helping harvest food vouchers’, worth $2 each. They can be spent like cash and then the food bank reimburses the markets.”

Communities benefit economically too. Hurt calls the markets “business multipliers,” and points to findings from a Local Food Economy Study conducted in 2007 by Dr. Viki Sonntag, Research Director of Sustainable Seattle. It shows that out of every $100 spent at a grocery store only $25 goes back into the local economy, compared to $62 out of every $100 spent at a farmers market. In the latter case, $99 of that $100 stays in the state. Seattle City Councilmember Clark agrees: “The markets are also a bonus for a neighborhood because people don’t stop just at the market. Shopper surveys show people visit other stores on market day and they spend. Everyone benefits.” Anecdotal evidence supports these claims.

“I’ve been selling at farmers markets for thirty years, and they turn out to be a plus for neighborhoods in every case,” says Jerry Pipitone, one of four farmer/vendors on NFMA’s board of directors. “It’s striking. When small businesses owners first hear their street will be closed once a week for a market, they go ballistic, afraid it will hurt them. Then they end up with increased business. Some even start staying open on Sunday if the market’s on that day.”

Neighborhood groups looking to start markets will find an abundance of helpful information on the internet, including the websites of the Farmers Market Coalition and the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. These sources and others offer practical advice on crucial factors like financing, marketing, organization, and logistics. NFMA Director Chris Curtis also recommends the Market Umbrella organization in New Orleans (marketumbrella.org) and their survey tool called “SEED”, for data on the impact of farmers markets on local business, and adds these comments:

Farmers Markets can be strong social catalysts for their immediate communities and there are many examples of their ability to revive neighborhoods.  They are also a great bright spot for a shrinking agricultural economy.

Like all things in life worth doing, starting a farmers market is worth doing well. With careful planning, a market can help bring about a healthier, happier, more vital community. Trade in the grocery cart, crowded aisles and canned music for some fresh air and sunshine, a basket over your arm, a world of color, scent, taste and sound, old fashioned face to face commerce, and a few bird songs thrown in. It could change your idea of neighborhood life.


Farmers Market Coalition  www.farmersmarketcoalition.org

Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance  www.seattlefarmersmarkets.org   

Market Umbrella (New Orleans) www.marketumbrella.org

Pipitone Farms www.farmingandtheenvironment.org/marketplace/NCentral/pipitone

Sustainable Seattle   www.sustainableseattle.org

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service  www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets


tip jarNeighborhood Life depends on your financial support.