14 March 2011

The "Off" Season

A glimpse of what's to come


People may think that Portland Farmers Market goes into hibernation after the last market of the season in December, but in fact, it is quite the opposite!  The “off” season is when PFM’s staff goes into full gear planning for the season ahead.  Senior Market Manager Jaret Foster shares a glimpse into his world:

Around the middle of February, I start to see some familiar faces from the market at farming conferences and networking events like OSU’s Small Farms Conference and the Chefs Collaborative Farmer-Chef Connection. They usually ask, “So how is your vacation going?” The implication being that since the market closed in December that I have been doing nothing, sitting idly, sipping tea and enjoying some much deserved time off. The reality is I am working hard planning and scheduling the coming season as early as January 1. We open our application to new vendors then and each of the six markets we operate has its individual intricacies so far as negotiating annual contracts, community relationships, not to mention the intake, review and processing of over 400 applicants.

After the holidays are over and the New Year has begun, my work changes significantly in that I spend much more time in front of a computer screen. Time that, though necessary, is not my favorite thing to do given that daylight is so limited in our northern clime. All the daylight hours it seems are dedicated to screen time in January, though this year a few of us from PFM did get the chance to visit Ancient Heritage Dairy in Scio. Paul showed us around the cheese room, cut some amazing samples of his fine cheeses and we looked out over the wet pastures while safe and snug in the massive barn that houses the sheep and cattle during the winter’s rains.

This season our application for new vendors ran from January 3 to 21. During this critical time, our team answers myriad questions from what in some cases are very “green” new businesses—green not in a save-the-earth-with-recyclable-packaging way but green in the brand-new-to-business way. This is to be expected, though, as one of our organization’s objectives is to help nurture new businesses.

Of the hundreds of new applications we get, an unfortunate minority are from farmers. This season we did see a good number of newer start up farms apply. This is fantastic to see as national averages say that more small farms fail than begin every year. Knowing that our markets can provide fledgling farmers with a platform for success makes what I do very gratifying.

A few of this season’s new farming applicants have unique concepts driving their business. Food Waves, a start up not-for-profit, has partnered with Converging Creeks Farm in support of their mission to provide an educational opportunity for new farmers to have paid internships to learn the craft. We will see them in mid-May at the Saturday PSU Market. Now there are three nonprofit farm/businesses in the PFM community. Food Works and Grow Portland are returning vendors with similar founding missions. We also have new farmers Brandon and Stephanie from Good Natured Gardens who have a greenhouse for plant starts in their NE Portland backyard and grow heirloom vegetables on a one-acre plot on Sauvie Island. Look for them at the Sunday King Market in May. Later on in the fall, we are super excited to welcome Cascadia Chestnuts to the Saturday PSU Market. Chris Foster grows six varieties of culinary chestnuts in the hills of NW Portland.

In the non-farming, value-added vendor category, we attracted an inordinate amount of bakery applications this year, many of which were specialty (gluten free, vegan) or product specific (cupcakes! Pie!). Of the many driving forces we use to determine a vendor’s qualifications, product sourcing is paramount. If a pie baker is going to join us we expect locally, directly sourced fruits (ideally from market vendors) in their fillings and local dairy and regionally-sourced wheat from eastern Washington in their crust. Of the few we selected, we are happy to welcome Lauretta Jean’s Pies to PSU, Crust & Common Pie Shop to NW and Queen of Hearts to Buckman (and PSU this spring). Each of these vendors has proven to be committed to creating pies and pastries using our local food shed as their inspiration and resource.

See you on March 19!

With the “off season” coming rapidly to a close (we did dress rehearsal on March 12!), I am excited and ready for the beginning of our 40-week season. As the spring light begins to show, and with daffodils and crocuses and longer days just around the corner, my spirits are raised and I very much look forward to seeing the vendors again, hearing of their off season and enjoying some much needed time outside. Our staff is prepped, our canopies washed and WD40’d and our new Director Trudy is eager to ring the opening bell on March 19 to kick off our 20th season!