Portland seems to be saturated with breweries, coffee roasters and food carts. In similar cities, farmers markets are on that list, too. Could Portland be next?
Last month the city finally passed new regulations
on farmer's markets, market gardens, community gardens and CSA distribution sites to increase access to healthful, affordable food. The rules have been a decade in the making.
There are already about 50 farmers markets operating in the Portland metro area.
The centerpiece of the new ordinance is a zoning change that allows farmers markets on sites like schools to bypass an outdated permit process that had been “costing markets time and money,” says Steve Cohen, manager of Food Policy and Programs at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. "We wanted to ensure that these operations did not face barriers or obstacles," says Cohen.
The new rules also raise standards. Now, at least 50 percent of vendors at any market must be farmers, while no more than 20 percent may sell products not related to food, such as homemade fork jewelry, decoupage lamps or birdhouses with birds on them.
But could these changes lead to too many markets?
It happened in San Francisco. Last summer, the New York Times reported that the city´s Starbucks mentality
was leading to “too many farmers’ markets.” In that article, Portland Farmer’s Market boss Trudy Toliver said she did not see farmer's markets reaching saturation here, saying she hadn’t “even heard grumblings.”
Toliver still believes that Portland is in no danger of reaching saturation point, even though more than 50 markets operate here. Though she runs the biggest markets in town, Toliver welcomes new rules making it easier to start competitors.
"What those regulations do is allow a community to start a market if and when the economic market is right for it," she says. "The physical opportunity might be there and easier now, but all the other factors still have to come together."
John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm agrees. "There aren't too many good markets in town," he says. "If markets are failing, it's not because there are too many of them, but because they're starting off without the things that they really need."
Yet, Eveland also notes that the Beaverton Market has lost customers since Hillsboro's markets have opened. "I do see old Beaverton customers wandering around other markets," he says. "It's lost a lot of traction, I think because Beaverton opens late and closes early in the season."
Already operating in six Portland-area markets, Gathering Together Farm is not planning on adding more locations, but smaller farms might be served by regulations designed to bring in more customers, making the trip to market financially worth the effort.
Cohen does not believe demand has peaked, and some markets are not able to attract as many farmers as they need.
"It's the chicken before the egg," Cohen says. "The bigger farmers are pretty much extended, but there are others who are not. They have to pick and choose, so if you make a better market, you'll bring in the farmers."
Toliver believes that Portland may be different from cities where saturation is a problem because people in the industry here are aware of the possibility and plan for it.
"We never discourage people from opening markets, and we're always willing to share best practices, but we do let them know the challenges," she says.
"We have those frank conversations, that maybe there aren't farmers chomping at the bit to get into their market."
Instead, Portland Farmers Market advocates for conversations between market managers to ensure that their focus is on bringing in new customers before bringing in new markets.
"Some believe that if they build it, people will come," she says, "but at PFM, we constantly think about how to bring in shoppers."