05 July 2011

Building Community

Jamie (fourth from left) with her market family

Don’t be jealous but I love my job.  No I’m not a travel writer venturing to the exotic corners of the earth on someone else’s bill nor am I a well-funded artist or well-respected musician of world renown; I am a Market Coordinator for Portland Farmers Market.  Though the essential duties of this job are organizing people and things, this only scratches the surface.

On a weekly basis I interact with hundreds of people including (but not limited to) shoppers, vendors, other staff members, city officials, chefs, musicians and various other community members.  I engage in conversations about market maps, lease agreements, meeting plans, vendor requirements and, my favorite, food.  I have up-close relationships with farmers and food producers in the greater Portland area.  I learn directly from them how crops are affected by the weather of the moment, how politics affect their business, how media affects consumer trends and how important direct sales at the market are to their viability.

As a native Midwesterner I grew up surrounded by farmland (the closest was several hundred feet from my childhood home) but no one was growing food.  My only experience with seasonality was whether or not I could wear shorts yet.  I had no knowledge of what fruits and vegetables were available when, except maybe corn.  My diet consisted of potatoes, iceberg lettuce, frozen beans and ground beef.  Purchasing food was always done inside, under fluorescent lighting, with a terrible 80’s soundtrack playing in the background.

No flourescent lighting here, Photo by Amy Nieto

In my world, all food was available all year, if you were willing and able to pay the price.  I was isolated from the natural processes that I now know bring food to the table.  I had no vision of how carrots burrow down while shooting their greens upward to capture the power of the sun.  I didn’t know that strawberries should not be white inside.  I had never consumed a hot dog that wasn’t made by a national brand.  And I had never met a farmer or planted anything with my hands.

It wasn’t until I moved to Portland nearly 10 years ago and began working for a vendor at the market that I became more keenly aware of what was available throughout the year from the rich Pacific Northwest soil.  I began to better understand and use new terms like sustainable, local, certified organic, conventional, transitional, food shed, and community.  In fact, as my knowledge about why farmers’ markets are so important continues to develop, this idea about community has become my primary focus.

Each Thursday as I don my “reds” (my beloved red PFM staff shirt) and set up my info booth at the Buckman Market, I watch all the vendors arrive and find myself filled with gratitude.  I am blessed to be able to interact with this small family commune of farmers, ranchers, culinary artists, and neighbors.  It is because of them that I have learned what it means to be a part of something humanly great.

Canopies & Community, Photo by Amy Nieto

I recently observed a new staff member for a vendor willingly assist her neighbors assemble their canopies before she even began her own set-up.  In return, these folks helped her raise her canopy.  I have witnessed vendors become friends with fellow vendors who could be considered ‘the competition’.  I routinely watch as vendors step-in to guard their neighbor’s belongings or children so they may get some food or take a much-needed break.  I’ve seen fellow vendors help each other when their cars break down or when they spill their products while unloading.  These observations have been both humbling and inspiring.

As market season ends, we all say a bittersweet goodbye—happy for the much needed rest but sad for the loss of our tether to community.  This mutuality and connection is what moves me most as I watch the season turn warm and dry and then shift back to wet and cold.  As a market community we all seem to hold our breath collectively when one of us has fallen or experienced hardship.  We also then celebrate when a vendor to returns for the season or achieves a well (and hard) earned accolade for their business.  We all seem to share the benefits and carry the burdens together.

Buckman Market, Photo by Amy Nieto

This idea of togetherness is what sustains me when the season wears me down.  In the summer, when I start to wish that I had a job that enabled me to go dip in the river rather than require me to stand baking in a parking lot.  Or, when the rain begins again (or never really ends) and the cold creeps into my bones and I yearn for central heating and dry socks.  Or, when I fantasize about working  someplace where everything is predictable and not so personal.  It is in these moments that I return to the premise of the market as a metaphor for how all people could exist.  That we might all live with respect and care for our neighbors and, like farmers tending to their crops and animals, that we can all have a gentle hand in nurturing each other towards success and happiness, together, for the benefit of all.