Exploring Locavore Living at the PSU Farmer’s Market

In 1992 the original Portland Farmer’s Market debuted with 13 vendors in the Albers Mill parking lot. Today there are more than 250 vendors at eight different sites, with sales upward of $7 million dollars annually—most of which goes directly to the vendors themselves.

This is but one example of the types of services offered by an artisan economy—the type of economy that Portland is nationally recognized for supporting.
But, what exactly does it mean to be an “artisan economy,” and how does that help us understand the significance of the vendors at Portland State and the hundreds of shoppers who happily walk through the congested Park Blocks?

For one, an artisan economy focuses on handmade instead of mass produced. This means that there will ultimately be more variation—and often higher-quality products—and allows the artisans to follow their own rhythms and live more independent lifestyles.

And, most importantly perhaps, is the fact that these artisans contest big businesses who tend to take money from local economies, and instead keep that money flowing cyclically through the local industrial web.

An important caveat should be noted: Many of the farmers and vendors at PSU’s market are not located in Portland. They are from Salem, West Linn, Joseph, Philomath and Bend—from all over Northwestern Oregon. These satellite vendors may take money from Portland, but the effect this has on deterring big businesses—while keeping the money in the state and filtering it into smaller, rural communities who often struggle to generate revenue—is still hugely influential on Portland’s economy, way of life and the state as a whole.

Now, let’s turn to a few vendors and see what theory looks like in practice.

While walking north past the library one Saturday, I saw beneath a white tent a somewhat tucked-away vendor, Minto Island Growers. They attend markets in Salem and Portland, and also feed customers through community supported agriculture, or CSA.

“Soon, we will be able to sell tea. The first tea grown and sold in Oregon,” said Rene Stars, who works for Minto Island Growers.

“We are amazed. We didn’t know tea could be grown in Oregon,” Stars said. “We will have black tea, green tea
and oolong.”

This is only their second week at the PSU Farmers Market, but they’ve been attending the Salem market for five years, and as such it’s become a major source of their income. This year marks their first year selling tea. It will be available by the second week of June. The farm was started by Elizabeth Miller and Christopher Jenkins, and is located at the Miller’s family property.

I look around their stand and realize they only sell starters.

“The market sets a limit for how many people can sell produce directly. There can only be so many people selling vegetables,” Stars said.
“And how does this affect you?” I asked.

“I like it,” she said. “It keeps competition in check.”

After an hour or so of idle rambling and buying a few French breakfast radishes grown in Joseph and some Mexican red beans grown on Sauvie’s Island (the PSU market, I should add, accepts SNAP, making it a realistic option for the starving college student), I met Elan Hagens, a mushroom lover who got her start by training dogs to truffle hunt. She sells homemade caramel, shiitake mushrooms, sea beans, as well as other foraged goods.

Hagens attends the PSU market and the Beaverton market.

“They are comparable,” she said. “The Beaverton one is really good.”

Does she have any competition here?

“Yes, there’s another mushroom guy. He lets me set up here. He’s been here since, like, it started almost 20 years ago!”

But, all in all, one gets the impression that she’s doing well, and besides selling to local eateries, these markets are her main source
of income.

“They put fancy names on mushrooms,” Hagens said, “but it’s all about how long it’s been growing. All those mushrooms in the store are the same strain. They put fancy names on it to trick Americans to buy them.”

A list of vendors can be found at the PFM website. But, of course, the best way to get in touch with the vendors is to walk through the Park Blocks on Satur-days and simply strike up a conversation.