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Monday, March 21, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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County to see bumper crop of spreading farm markets

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For a list of farmers markets scheduled to open this spring throughout Seattle and King County, go to dnr.metrokc.gov/wlr/farms/farmers_markets.htm

Seattle-area residents apparently eat their veggies.

A record number of farmers markets — at least two dozen — are expected to open in Seattle and King County this spring, some earlier than in previous years, prompting local agriculture experts to say the area is in the early stage of a farmers-market boom.

"I think Seattle city limits can handle 30 to 40 markets," said Steve Evans, King County's leading expert on farmers markets. "There are enough folks interested and enough customers to have that many markets."

Washington already has more than 90 farmers markets, the most in the Northwest, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In King County alone, the number has doubled in the past five years.

Markets typically operate one day a week and feature from 20 to 80 vendors, some selling just agricultural goods, others adding baked goods, clothing and crafts.

The Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, which manages five Seattle-area markets, plans to open a sixth market off Broadway in May and perhaps a seventh in Phinney Ridge next year.

A group that runs the markets in Fremont and Ballard recently started a Capitol Hill market near Seattle Central Community College and hopes to add another in Seattle later this year. Lake Forest Park will get a market this year.

Other produce vendors are finalizing street permits and working with neighborhood associations to add more in the next five months.

Market veterans attribute their popularity to the Pike Place Market, the first to offer fresh produce and organic selections in a community atmosphere unseen in grocery stores.

Founded in 1907, the market has become one of the Northwest's biggest tourist attractions, spawning smaller versions of itself in major neighborhoods.

Threat to local businesses

In some neighborhoods with large Asian populations, farmers markets are less popular because local store owners consider them a competitive threat.

For years, shopkeepers in the Chinatown International District — many of whom sell produce outside their storefront groceries, — successfully have fought off efforts to bring in a farmers market.

In White Center, community leaders will not bring back a farmers market this year because it cut into the profit margins of some local Asian stores.

Located outside Seattle's southwest city limits, White Center is the first home to thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees.

With cheap commercial real estate and a large Asian population, it's one of the most popular places in King County for those newcomers to run their first business.

Hoping to rejuvenate White Center's downtown, community leaders brought in a Saturday market in the summer of 2003.

To make room, they closed streets and parking lots that had provided access to a few Asian businesses, angering several store owners, who lost parking spaces — and business — to market vendors.

"They keep telling me [the market crowd] would help my business. But if I sell produce and they sell produce, how does that help me?" said Sam Yin, who runs New Angkor Market, a Cambodian store.

Administrators at the White Center Community Development Association said that, out of loyalty to the local business owners, they will not bring back the market.

Hmongs' flowers popular

Not all Asian communities are opposed to the public markets, however.

Hmong refugees from the mountains of Laos draw some of the biggest crowds at neighborhood markets, selling floral bouquets for as little as $5.

Unlike many farmers, who also sell to grocery chains and restaurants, most Hmongs sell exclusively at farmers markets. They typically farm on five to 10 acres and send family members to work as many markets as possible.

The farmers markets are a lifeline for Hmong farmers, said Fong Cha, who sells produce and flowers at the University District, Magnolia, Ballard and Pike Place markets. With new markets opening up, these are exciting times, he said.

Like the Hmong, other farmers also are selling at markets instead of relying on just grocery chains. Their sales volume is lower at markets, but they keep a greater share of the profit.

Waiting list of growers

The waiting list to sell at many Seattle-area farmers markets is reaching a record high, market managers said.

Many are extending the season. Farmers markets in the University District, Magnolia, Columbia City and Lake City will open up to three weeks earlier this year, in May.

The farmers market in Kent will run about a month longer.

"It has become a gathering place. You meet people you do not see during the workweek," said Chris Curtis, who runs the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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