Seattle's Farmers Markets: A look at these community staples and the challenges they face

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Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Farmers Markets
Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Farmers Markets

During the pandemic, Seattle residents anxious to get out of the house and find a lower-risk, socially distanced activity found solace in the city's farmers markets.

These venues have long served as a connection for residents to explore local providers and meet the vendors behind each operation. Operating year-round or seasonally, and open rain or shine (sometimes snow or smoke), they are one-stop culminations of Washington's food systems.

"Food is the most essential thing that we have. Everyone has to eat every single day, and when you get food systems right, you get all of these cascading benefits," said Ele Watts, manager of the Capitol Hill market and food access program for Neighborhood Farmers Markets (NFM). "A farmers market is a nexus of that: you get the positive social benefits, urban environment benefits, the environmental sustainability of eating local, and close-to-home products that are farmed organically or from farmers using sustainable methods."

It's difficult for small businesses to pursue opening a brick-and-mortar location. In Seattle, asking rents for commercial spaces average $41.40 per square foot (according to market intelligence platform CommercialCafe). So these markets serve as a space for vendors to build clientele and foray into business ownership without the challenges of conventional methods.

"The markets are such a wonderful way for small businesses to get exposure, and also use the diverse demographic to test out different products without a lot of risk," said Alessandra Gordon, owner of Ayako and Family, a family-owned plum jam company and vendor at the Ballard and University District markets. "They get to build clientele and relationships with other vendors, and operate their business without a whole lot of overhead."

The effects of the pandemic
The pandemic wasn't casualty free for Seattle's farmers markets, however. Prepared food and craft vendors and live performances were absent from spaces for at least part of 2020, as the markets were forced to cut vendor count for social distancing.

"Farmers markets are an essential food access point for all folks in our neighborhoods, and there was a sort of pent-up energy, but also hesitancy, because people did not want to get in [others'] space," said Matt Kelly, executive director of the Queen Anne Farmers Market (QAFM).

In 2020, the independently operated QAFM saw 24,000 market shoppers, down from 112,800 in 2019. The NFM's revenue is projected to be $9 million in local food sales across all seven markets, compared to $12 million in 2019, making this a recovery year for the association. To accommodate for some losses, the Seattle Farmers Market Association (SFMA) and the NFM began offering online ordering last year. Both plan to continue doing so in some capacity.

"We found a lot of community members actually really enjoy that quick access and contactlessness," said Kelly Kube, operations manager for the SFMA, which operates in Ballard year-round and Wallingford and Madrona seasonally. Kube said the system has been a "lifesaver" for so many of the markets' vulnerable customers. "With [the uncertainty caused by] the Delta variant, we're also keeping it as a safe option."

Accessibility and inclusivity
Food benefit access has also been a major facet of market accessibility efforts. Over a hundred across Washington state (32 in King County) participate in the SNAP Market Match, a program matching the number of EBT tokens used at the markets.

"I think most people on Queen Anne would be very surprised at how many people take advantage of some of the programs that we have to support people who are at risk, to be sure they get fresh, quality food here on Queen Anne," said John Bottum, a member of the QAFM's board of directors. "We have a lot of neighbors who need assistance, and I'm really glad that they're able to come here and get high-quality food just like the rest of us."

Looking forward, the need to expand accessibility and inclusivity across the markets as they emerge from a year of economic turmoil remains on the minds of staff and vendors alike, and a topic of discussion during recent meetings across the city.

"At our strategic planning retreat, we talked a lot about how to make our markets more accessible. Where are we going to put our efforts? And we really mean accessibility in every version of that word: physical, logistical, financial, social, and cultural," said Watts. As manager of the Capitol Hill market, which operates every Sunday at the AIDS Memorial Pathway, Watts has found it importance to connect the neighborhood's LGBT community to the market.

"Being a queer person operating the market in the neighborhood, I get an extra sense of joy, walking around and seeing my community... feeling welcome," they continued. "I see a lot of shoppers stopping to take in the artwork — and a lot of people coming to see the artwork and then stopping in the market as well. That crossover feels so connective and positive for me."

Gordon hopes the markets will expand outreach and resources for other aspiring QPOC vendors, as competition for spaces can leave vendors struggling to secure spots without the same resources.

"I think about folks that don't have access to all these resources to figure out things like 'How do I start a business?[ or 'I'm really interested in being in the market, but what does that require?' It feels like there's less of that resource going around," said Gordon. "What I hope for... is making that information more accessible so that you get a more diverse crowd applying. And hopefully there are more spots, and maybe some of the white-owned, white-operated businesses can subsidize some of these queer, BIPOC businesses."

Markets across the city are always looking for people from all walks of life to get involved in any capacity. Not sure where the closest market is? The Washington State Farmers Market Association offers a directory at: