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May 22, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Is Pike Place Market really a farmers market?

Pike Place Market file photo by Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times

Pike Place Market file photo by Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times

The Huffington Post recently named Pike Place Market one of the country’s 10 best farmers markets. It was a well-deserved honor, except for one thing: Under most guidelines, the city landmark isn’t actually a farmers market.

It’s true that the public market, which the city’s website calls “the oldest continually operating farmers market in the United States,” is a city treasure when it comes to fresh food and artisan producers. Spring officially starts for me when the first morels come to Sosio’s Produce — it’s got an enviable selection of local wild mushrooms, and an ample produce selection, period. My fridge is well-stocked with preserved lemons from Britt’s Pickles and smoked salmon from City Fish and cheeses from Mount Townsend Creamery.

“When it comes to customer service, produce quality, freshness and variety, and vendor knowledge there really is nothing in this region that compares to the Pike Place Market,” Sosio’s manager Tom Osborn wrote me earlier this year when I omitted Pike Place from a story mentioning year-round farmers markets.

But the Market’s wide variety of businesses “does not allow us to be considered a farmers market in the strictest sense,” even though farmers are its essential cornerstone, acknowledged Emily Crawford, the Market’s marketing specialist, when we talked earlier this year.

At the Market’s farm stalls, producers meet the requirements we usually associate with farmers markets — “strict requirements for growing everything they offer — whether flowers, seasonal produce, meat and poultry or value-added products,” Crawford wrote in an email. But its high stalls, the year-round produce markets, are allowed to sell produce purchased from wholesalers and from outside the region. There would be nothing wrong, for instance, with them selling a Costa Rican banana next to Skagit Valley peas.

That goes against the state Farmers Market Association guidelines (there are no national guidelines, according to the USDA), which forbid vendors to buy from wholesalers, or to buy produce from outside Washington or specific bordering counties in Oregon or Idaho. That means, for instance, no bananas and no oranges. There’s also a formula requiring sales from farmers to exceed sales from produce resellers and other categories.

Pike Place Market does operate a summer farmers market Fridays-Sundays within the larger Market boundaries, and it operates “express” farmers market branches around town in the summer. All of these subsets qualify as farmers markets. It’s just that the entirety of Pike Place Market, with its mix of vendors and craftspeople, does not.

It sounds like a technicality, but I think it’s good to be aware of the distinction.

Both customers and farmers want a clear definition of what it means to be a farmers market. That’s what allows them to assess, in just one example, that it’s wrong for national supermarket chains to advertise a “farmers market” when they’re just setting up produce displays outside. It draws the line encouraging customers to object and market managers to investigate if they think farmers are importing fruits and vegetables rather than growing their own. It allows — literally, in our region — apples to apples comparisons between the organizations.

If the Post just called Pike Place “one of the 10 best markets in the country,” period, it would have been spot on.

Comments | Topics: Britt's Pickles, farmers market definition, farmers markets

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