by JESSICA MOLL & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & inety miles north of Spokane, on land he's been farming full time for 12 years, Brent Olsen is digging like mad. German butterballs. Fingerlings. Blue potatoes. At the downtown Spokane Farmers Market next week, Olsen Farms will be selling more than 20 varieties of potatoes -- along with grass-fed beef, lettuce and other greens.
"We're most famous for our potatoes," says Olsen, one of the founders of the downtown market. "We have a lot of loyal customers, and we usually sell out. We call it 'The Potato Revolution.'"
But next week, Olsen expects an even bigger crowd than usual. Along with other small farmers in Eastern Washington and around the state, he's gearing up for Washington State Farmers Market Week, from Aug. 12-18. For the second year in a row, Gov. Gregoire has designated one week in August as a time to recognize the benefits of local farmers markets.
Those benefits, Olsen says, are innumerable. Consumers get to buy the tastiest, healthiest food available, and small farmers who don't produce commercial quantities and couldn't survive in the wholesale market are able to stay in business through direct marketing. Small farms like Olsen's practice farming techniques that conserve water, avoid the heavy use of pesticides, sustain the soil, and treat animals with compassion. These farms also create jobs in rural areas -- Olsen employs 10 people.
Farmers markets also help distribute wealth throughout the state: Olsen sells his potatoes and beef at a dozen markets in Seattle. "But I bring those dollars back to Spokane and Stevens County," he says.
But more important than any of these practical benefits is the sense of community farmers markets create. Jeanette Herman of Cliffside Orchard enjoys getting to know the customers who are addicted to the organic cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, pears and apples that she and her husband, Jeff, sell at the downtown markets. The Hermans host a harvest potluck in October, complete with hand-cranked apple cider, at their eight-acre orchard overlooking Lake Roosevelt. "It's an opportunity to thank our customers," Jeanette says. "We just visit and have a good time." For her, the market is "not just a matter of selling fruit, but building relationships.
Right now, Jeff and Jeanette are picking apricots and peaches for next week's markets. In addition to the seasonal abundance provided by the farmers, most Spokane-area markets will host special activities to join in the statewide celebration. On Wednesday, Aug. 15, chef David Blaine of Latah Bistro will give a food demonstration at the downtown market, opening people's eyes to the range of fruits and veggies available, and providing suggestions for cooking locally and seasonally. And on Saturday, August 18, the downtown market will hold drawings for discount coupons and market totes throughout the day.
Anna Ethington, market coordinator for the Humble Earth (Sunday), Millwood (Wednesday) and South Perry (Thursday) farmers markets, is excited about the events she has planned for the second annual Farmers Market Week. "Everybody has a great time and stays for the day," she says. Each of the three markets will hold a watermelon-eating contest, water balloon toss, picnic basket giveaway, live music and free massages. Susie David's Cattle Company will provide the barbecue, with beef raised on their pasture near Mount St. Michael.
Kids and tomatoes are the focus at Liberty Lake Farmers Market next week. After tomato-themed stories in the Liberty Lake Children's Library on Saturday, August 18 at 10:30, kids can come outside to the market and taste all the red juiciness they can get their hands on. At 11:30, they can meet Otto, the mascot for the Spokane Indians, and enter to win tickets to a game.
Now in its sixth year, the Liberty Lake Farmers Market is just one example of a revolution that's about more than just potatoes. According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers markets in Washington has doubled in the past 10 years. On one day this July, more than 1,300 people came through the Liberty Lake Market, 300 to 400 more than the year before, says Angela Pizelo, an intern and coordinator for that market. "We're really happy to see the growth of the market," she says.