In this city, we love our veggies.
From that bundle of leafy, deep-green chard in a CSA box delivered to your doorstep to the tall stack of Gathering Together Farm's emerald leeks plucked from the Portland Farmers Market, many shoppers in this town have bought into the idea that buying direct from farmers helps preserve the farmers' way of life as well as consumers'. But as spring sprouts—the first downtown farmers market opens this Saturday, April 5—it also brings evidence that Portland's forward-thinking attitude toward produce may have created an unintended crop of problems this year.
Portland has more farmers markets and CSAs (community-supported agriculture projects) than most cities its size. Take Cleveland: Look at the website Local Harvest, a clearinghouse of listings for sustainable farms and communities, and you'll see Cleveland hosts 23 markets to our 33, and 13 CSAs to our 37, a clear indication of our collective spending habits.
Right now Oregon farmers are hard at work in fields all around the state, trying to plant enough of that good stuff to go around. Because this year, more than ever, those fragrant fresh herbs, sweet baby carrots and tender young arugula will be going fast. (Just take a look at the roster of local markets opening in the next two months, above.)
If you've thought about joining a subscription farm (which is like a CSA, but without the hands-on involvement of customers) or CSA, but haven't gotten around to doing it yet, you may just be out of luck, says John Martinson of Birds and Bees Community Farm in Oregon City. Since 1994, Martinson has been supplying weekly produce boxes to CSA customers (16 families this year) and now says he's sold out until 2010 because nearly all of his recipients renew their subscriptions year after year and he has a long waiting list.
"This year is going to be tight all over," Martinson says. "Many farmers have reached a plateau or are cutting back. There has also been an explosion of interest." CSA farmers report that taking on too many customers too soon can be a seductively profitable—but deadly—response to the upsurge in demand, and one that the inexperienced often fall prey to. As tempting as it is to sign up all willing customers, farmers can only grow as much as their land and weather will allow. WW spoke with half of the 28 farmers listed on the Portland Area CSA Coalition website, and most of them are already sold out.
Shari Sirkin of Dancing Roots Farm in Troutdale says that she still has a few CSA shares available, but they'll be selling out quick. "I've never been this far along so early," Sirkin says.
So what's a veggie-hungry Portlander to do? Visit a neighborhood farmers market, right? Better show up early. It turns out more Portland shoppers are making that choice every year—market visits to the four Portland Farmers Markets (the two South Park Blocks markets, the Ecotrust market and the Eastbank market) are up 216 percent since 2001.
That leaves Eamon Molloy, president of the Oregon Farmers Market Association, questioning whether existing farmers can carry more weight as demand continues to increase. Last year, spending at the same Portland Farmers Markets was $5.5 million—a 366 percent increase since 2001. That's more people, each spending more money per visit.
As a result, the Portland Development Commission has funded a study conducted by the city's Office of Sustainable Development to explore what the future could look like for the area's farms and farmers—and the increasing numbers of us who buy direct. Work on that project has just begun, says Molloy, who was involved in determining the scope of the study.
How much longer will the fertile Willamette Valley be able to grow enough food to feed its ravenous inhabitants who want to buy direct from farmers?
Larry Lev, an extension marketing economist at Oregon State University's Agriculture and Resource Economics Department, has studied farmers market and CSA customers, and has found that they are highly invested in how these small farms are run.
"More and more people are beginning to think that one of the joys of living in Oregon is being able to shake hands with the person who is growing their food," Lev said in an interview last year.
Sounds like news of that "Oregon joy" has traveled—and fast. Here's to hopin' our farmers can keep up.