Opinion

Point/Counterpoint: Supports permanent farmers market site on Nichols Street

By RICHARD FOOTE

One thing you gotta love about the islands: for every two people you’ll find three opinions. The fate of farming on the islands is no exception.

As a participant on the tax rolls, and a business owner that creates real jobs and pays real taxes in our community, there are a few points I would like to make in support of the Permanent Farmers’ Market, an in-town resource for farmers.

From ancient times, markets have been in cities, towns and villages because they are a vibrant part of the landscape that connects farmers with their customers. To relegate the farmers’ market in this community to the fairgrounds like another entertainment, sideshow or traveling antique show will damage the relationship between the town, the country and our visitors.

There are more than 130 farmers’ markets in the State of Washington. Most of them occur in or near the core of residential or commercial activity in their communities. In Bellingham, the Kiwanis Club, composed of many business people and other volunteers, helped spearhead the building of the downtown farmers' market building, and the Fairhaven Market is in a public park adjacent to many businesses that enjoy the increased foot traffic provided by the market.

It is interesting that in many areas shopping malls have welcomed farmers’ markets. This demonstrates that many merchants do not feel the market is a competitor, but rather a traffic generator. The National Main Street Organization has urged communities to put the farmers’ market downtown in order to help promote downtown as a cohesive whole.

The farmers' market is not solely about selling produce. There is a rich compendium of produce, fruits, meats, condiments, and farm-based products of every description. One key element is that the market acts as vital incubator of small agricultural and food-based business here on the island. These create jobs with working wages for those that participate.

Some, such as Pelindaba Lavender, have grown past the market and have a successful business model and product line tested at the farmers’ market. Others, such as Thirsty Goose Farm have created new products that were introduced and popularized at the market and are now in wider distribution and no longer are limited to market sales. Many other market vendors, farm-based and town-based, are in fact creating income (and tax revenues) all year-round.

For us at States Inn & Ranch, our farmers’ market revenue is a significant portion of the income that allowed us to hire nine Friday Harbor High School students and grads this year to work in the gardens, make value-added agricultural products, and sell them at the market. These jobs for young people are vital to our future.

A permanent market in town will help us provide work opportunities during the school year as well. Their wages flow into the community, and the lessons they learn working benefit their lives and enrich our island. We’ll need fewer jails and drug rehab programs if our kids can built a sense of self-esteem and community connection through their work. That is good use of public funds.

Towns need infrastructure. Once there was a dairy and several food stores, two hardware stores and a shoe repair, in downtown Friday Harbor. Year by year, those businesses close or relocate uptown somewhere, often replaced by businesses that sell imported products to the tourist market. We are slowly losing the infrastructure that preserves the historical nature of the town, and slowly removing reasons for residents to go down Spring Street.

Right now, this building that has generated jobs since 1920 has fallen on hard times. This use of public funds will turn a cyclone fence-covered parking lot into a vital resource and a source of community pride, with no net loss of revenue to the town. How is that a bad thing?

Some are doubtful that the agricultural production on the island can sustain a market for more than a few hours a week. Historically, agriculture production sustained the island, so we know it can be done. Many farmers grow far more than they sell on Saturday. They distribute through CSAs, to restaurants, and their farm stands. A central distribution facility to get farm-based products to the consumers will decrease the amount of driving that goes on, allow the elderly without cars to have more access to healthy fresh food, and reduce the time farmers spend delivering products. This will give current farmers the logistical support to increase production, facilities to realize revenue during the winter months, and increase the likelihood that new farms and new farmers will be able to succeed and be around to replace all of us “gray heads.”

Keeping downtown vital, preserving historical structures, creating jobs, paying taxes and revenue to the city, keeping farmers on their farms. These are some of the real, tangible community benefits that will be gained from this good and proper use of public funds for the public good. We, the public will benefit, as will those who follow us in years to come.

— Richard Foote is owner of States Inn & Ranch, San Juan Island.

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