Love affair with local food is good for small farms

By Janet Stevens / The Bulletin

Published May 17, 2013 at 05:00AM

Farmers markets, Central Oregon-style, tend to be dominated by growers from the Willamette Valley. Perhaps that’s not surprising — with a much longer growing season than generally is the case in these parts, row-crop agriculture is a much bigger deal west of the Cascades than immediately east.

Yet locals are making inroads and even folks who might otherwise simply be called gardeners are also finding a niche. Starting in a couple of weeks, on May 25, a new market will give backyard farmers and others another opportunity to sell their excess to their neighbors for a small fee.

The Celebrate the Season Backyard Farmer’s Market is the brainchild of Duane and Julie Schiedler, who own a store with the same Celebrate the Season name on American Lane, where the Backyard market will be. The store itself is neighborhood-style establishment that, like the farmer’s market, concentrates on goods produced nearby.

Does Bend really need yet another farmers market?

Could be. The largest — Wednesday’s market in downtown Bend — is more expensive to vendors than the shoestring Backyard market will be, Julie Schiedler says. There are also markets on Tuesdays at Brookswood Plaza and Saturdays in Northwest Crossing.

Like the folks at Brookswood, Schiedler plans to concentrate on local growers, not necessarily “farmers” in the traditional sense. She plans a market that will attract backyard gardeners whose crops of zucchini and lettuce outstrip their own and friends’ needs. She plans to rent spaces by the season and half-season, but also by the week. Too, she welcomes crafters, as do the Northwest Crossing and Brookswood markets, and some service providers.

It remains to be seen if Bend can support farmers markets three days a week, including two on Saturday. It may not be able to, and, in fact, the Bend Farmers Market, which operates the downtown event, has dropped its Friday sale at St. Charles Medical Center for the coming season. But just the idea that so many organizations and businesses have found a reason to stage them and take part in them says something about the region and the time in which we live, I think.

As nearly as I can tell, there were no farmers markets in Central Oregon during the last half of the last century. That’s probably not unusual: It was an era in which the wonders of modern transportation were still wondrous and the abundance of inexpensive food at the grocer’s was pretty darned tempting. Tomatoes in January were a novelty early on, so much so that their lack of flavor and rock-like texture were outweighed by the fact that they were available at all.

It was also a time that saw the decline of the relatively small-plot farmer, at least in the U.S. Growing food for ConAgra or Archer Daniels Midland on a farm about three times larger than the average farm at the beginning of the 20th century is no doubt more profitable than taking one’s chances with one’s friends and neighbors.

But our love affair with bigness is dwindling. Small organic farms like the 10-acre Fields Farm in Bend, and even smaller plots like the one tended by my daughter and her partner for several years, would never have survived 30 years ago.

Even today their survival, at least if they’re located on the edge of the High Desert, is no sure thing. It relies on the judicious use of plant shelters like hoop houses and, often, free labor or free land or free something else. Yet survive they do.

They do in part because we now recognize that tomatoes as hard as rocks aren’t all that good, and that those grown close to home and available only when God intended them to be smell better, taste better and, because they tend to be much fresher, are actually better for us.

Too, for many of us the idea of supporting the local guy, be it small farmer or local business owner, is a lot more attractive than it has been in years. Local merchants share our economic pain in ways supermarket chains never can, in part because the former, with little economy of scale to help, are often in the same boat we are.

There’s something else, as well, worth mentioning. In 1901 Americans spent roughly 40 percent, on average, of their income on food. Today that number is well under 10 percent. The luxury of paying more for something grown nearby is far from the sacrifice it might have been even in the early 1960s, when about a quarter of income went to food.

All of which is good news for Julie and Duane Schiedler and the other farmers market operators in the area and for the growers who supply them.