Are flowers taking bloom off vegetables at Pike Place Market?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Add a lime-green zinnia and bachelor's buttons in a burgundy so dark it's called black. Toss in a sprig of mint and a twig of eucalyptus, wrap it in butcher paper and tie a plastic bag of water to the stems.
The result is a Pike Place Market signature bouquet, the type that elicited a primal reaction from Pierson during a recent Seattle vacation.
"I'm from Texas," Pierson said. "We're into 'big.' But these bouquets, they're huge. I can buy a bouquet of flowers back home but it would be a quarter the size and three times the price."
Tourists and locals alike have come to treasure the exotic stems and spectacular bouquets that have vaulted Pike Place into one of the finest open-air, fresh-flower markets in the world. But behind the scenes, others consider the infiltration of flowers during the past decade a threat to Pike Place's integrity as a farmers market.
Pike Place was founded in 1907 to give local farmers a place to sell their produce directly to the consumer. Ever since, the Market has tried to preserve that authenticity and those loyalties.
Advocates faithful to Pike Place's agrarian roots persistently push for the selling of more food and less frill. Their influence has led to a moratorium on flower farmers, incentives pushing flower farmers to sell more vegetables and a new section at the Market where only edible farm products — thus, no flowers — are sold.
All the while, the immigrant flower farmers, many of them Hmong, have turned their garden-variety skills into a distinctively Seattle art form. If they feel unappreciated within the Market fraternity, they get plenty of love from those who buy their product at gee-whiz prices.
The flower growers figure they are giving customers what they want — even if that conflicts with what Pike Place wants to be.
"The people who run the Market would like us to bring vegetables regardless if we are able to sell them," said Xee Yang-Schell, who sells the blooms her mother grows at farms in Woodinville and Monroe. "People have to grow what they grow best. And they have to sell what sells best."
Tina Ordonio, who began selling vegetables and berries at Pike Place in 1949 with her husband, now focuses exclusively on the flowers she grows in Kent Valley fields. They are easier to grow and lighter to carry.
"Customers complain if you charge $1.50 for one pound of beans," said Ordonio, 78. "They say, 'Why so expensive?' They don't know how hard it is to pick beans. With flowers, nobody ever complains about the price."
Driven by dollars
Economics has driven the shift from produce to flowers. A bundle of baby bok choy might sell for $1, a bouquet of flowers for $10. Growing vegetables also poses challenges for many flower farmers who rent or own land without irrigation or water rights. Vegetables need more water than flowers do.
At the eight-acre Woodinville farm where Sua Yang, Yang-Schell's mother, grows about 75 varieties of flowers, rows of Chinese spinach, basil and corn have barely emerged from dusty soil, stunted by a parched June.
"I try to plant vegetables," Yang said. "I try many times. But it's not good."
She is trying because Market management is encouraging her. The Pike Place Preservation and Development Authority (PDA), the Market landlord, rents an extra table to flower farmers at no charge if they sell produce at their other two. Few take the PDA up on its offer.
In 1996, a PDA-imposed moratorium stopped welcoming new flower farmers.
On a typical peak summer day, some 35 farmers sell flowers, filling about three of every four farmers tables inside the arcade.
"People come to the Market because of the flowers, just like they come for the flying fish," said Market Master Marlene Allen, the PDA's link to farmers. "But there is such a thing as saturation."
While a farmer can make several hundred dollars a day between May and October, when fresh flowers are in season, the business is not that lucrative, said Yang-Schell, 30. Along with the increasing competition, crops are fragile, subject to extremes in weather.
"I think the saturation of the flower market at Pike Place happened several years ago," she said. "But how can you tell these people they should leave the Market? They are here because they need to make a living."
A business of immigrants
Much of the produce sold at Pike Place is purchased from wholesalers by vendors who rent "high stalls" year-round. "High stalls" are separate from "day stalls," which are tables the PDA rents daily to farmers.
It is on these day-stall tables where flowers have proliferated.
Most Pike Place flower growers are Hmong or Filipino, with farms in Carnation, Monroe, Woodinville or the Kent Valley. Yang is Hmong, a tribe from the mountains of Laos that farmed for sustenance, not profit. Like generations of immigrants before them, they found their way to Pike Place, where hard work has a tradition of overcoming a lack of English skills.
Hmong farmers began selling Asian vegetables at the Market but switched to flowers because the vegetables were hard to grow and sold slowly.
Yang, who started selling at Pike Place in 1987, works in the fields during the summer, usually from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. At her Woodinville farm, she presides over 250 rows, from 20-foot-high eucalyptus to knee-high dianthus. When she cuts the stubbier flowers, she stoops without bending her knees.
"Some nights I go home and sit down and I can't get back up because my legs hurt," said Yang, 54. "My back, too."
Yang uses a flat, homemade cutting tool, an Exacto blade encased in white plastic, clenching it in her palm. She maneuvers the blade by moving her middle finger, her knuckles swollen from the repetitive stress.
Yang figures she has two or three more years before her body tells her to quit. "We want to sell at a good price," she said. "But some people don't know how hard we work, and they sell cheap. The price goes down and down. That makes me angry. There are too many people selling."
Flower power buds
Pike Place flower power started 10 years ago when a lone farmer selling exclusively flowers at the Market drove up later that season in a new truck. Other farmers noticed.
"It took only about two years after that for the Market to be transformed," said Mark Musick, PDA farm specialist from 1997 to 2002.
Musick loves telling that story, just as he enjoys chronicling how the local Hmong — aided by a seed vendor named Lana Baker — have transformed the Market.
"How is it that these Neolithic, tribal, nonliterate people did this?" he said. "All the PDA knew was that these 'troublemakers' took over the Market. But there was this woman behind the revolution, this invisible person, and no one at the PDA knew it."
Baker was the bulk-seed buyer at Seattle Garden Center, a Molbak's nursery across the street from the arcade. Early on, farmers were selling wildflowers and traditional annuals that, while pretty, were not well-suited for tightly bunched bouquets. Baker suggested they grow more unusual varieties.
"I would get a picture of the flower and walk it across the street to show the farmers," Baker said.
Baker, laid off a year before the nursery closed last fall, now runs her own seed business, Dragonstone Farm. She makes house calls to Pike Place, wheeling a plastic tool case full of seed through the farmers' stalls.
Yang-Schell is one of the few flower sellers at Pike Place with formal training. She attended Floral Design Institute, a Seattle school that instructs florists from all over the world.
David Kesler, the school's co-owner, said the bouquet techniques of the Hmong track a European style rarely seen in the U.S. They use fragile but showy flowers, such as dahlias, and balance arrangements with edibles, such as kale or mint.
"Some top floral designers who do experimental stuff have the courage to mix in things like that, but you rarely see that at the street-market level," Kesler said. "The reason farmers at the Market are doing it is because they don't know they aren't supposed to."
He said the fresh-flower market at Pike Place is on par with those in Paris or Amsterdam, which is saying a lot since Europeans buy flowers for themselves daily at street markets.
In the U.S., people tend to buy for others and only for special occasions. But Seattle is becoming the exception.
"Seeing people buy flowers for themselves at the Market is so exciting," Kesler said.
Through the decades, attempts to limit sales at Pike Place — whether crafts or cherries or flowers — have been controversial.
"Pike Place, like any farmers market, needs produce to thrive," said Judy Duff, a produce farmer at Pike Place for 18 years. "At the same time, I believe the flower grower is as much of a farmer as am I, who grows only food.
"Do I want more food at the Market? You bet. Does that mean I'm going to sacrifice another farmer to get there? Absolutely not."
Shelly Yapp, PDA executive director from 1989 to 1999, said her administration tried to balance the volume of produce and flowers. "When tables designed for a variety of farm product are so dominated by one product, putting limits on that product made sense to me," she said.
Allen, the PDA market master, said the forces of the marketplace likely will dictate the future of flower farmers at Pike Place. But attrition also may play a role as farmers grow weaker with age and no new flower growers are allowed in to replace them.
Since Ordonio's husband died in 1987, she has been selling off her Kent Valley properties. She is down to an 11-acre farm, half of which she leases to another grower, and the gardens of her Kent home.
Ordonio's brother plows the land, but she and her sister-in-law do most of the picking. With an arthritic knee, Ordonio struggles to climb in and out of the enormous Chevy Scottsdale truck she drives to the Market three or four days a week.
On a recent sunny morning, Ordonio picked flowering sweet peas on her farm, the staked vines dwarfing her by at least a foot. The next day, her tables at the Market displayed pots full of the fragrant flowers, selling at $3 a bunch or two for $5.
A young man in a button-down shirt and flip-flops approached her table. Ryan Gray had come to buy flowers for his brother's wedding the following day in Spokane.
"I need $100 worth," he said. His purchase emptied half of Ordonio's pots and filled her heart.
"My two kids tell me, 'Don't go to the Market, Mom. You don't have to do that anymore.' But what am I going to do? Sit at home and watch the four corners of my house? No way. I meet so many people at the Market.
"People come by and see me and they say, 'Tina, are you still here?' "
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company