By Debra Smith HBJ Freelance Writer
EVERETT — A lot of people can’t stop singing the praises of the new indoor farmers’ market being built in downtown Everett.
The market should help farmers and preserve farmland, organizers say, by giving local growers and producers a hub to distribute their goods from and a place to sell directly to customers year-round.
It should secure a steady stream of local food, serve as a small-business incubator and draw more people downtown.
At least, that’s the hope.
Some details remain up in the air, as workers begin building the 60,000-square-foot agriculture center on Grand Avenue, a block south of the Everett Public Market building.
One of the most significant unknowns: How will organizers fill the market with local produce during the winter months? That’s a central goal of the project, as organizers want to support local farmers and producers, rather than truck most of the produce from out-of-state.
A nonprofit made up of farmers called the Snohomish County Growers Alliance plans to operate the market. They’re now working on negotiating a master lease with the developer, Lobsang Dargey.
A separate nonprofit may operate the commercial kitchen.
They’re still sorting out details, such as how much farmers would be charged to rent a stall in the market, said John Postema, president of the Alliance. He and his wife, Marijke, own Flower World, Maltby Produce and Marshland Produce.
His farmland includes a winery, orchard and a wide selection of produce, some of which is grown in greenhouses. He’d like to occupy a permanent stall at the market.
He looks at the success of other indoor markets, such as the Calgary Farmers’ Market, and sees tremendous opportunity for local farmers. The Calgary, Alberta, market has 80 percent of its vendors making, baking or growing what they sell. The market pulls in 20,000 visitors a week.
“The potential is there, but so is the challenge,” Postema said.
For the project to be successful, it may take adjustments on the part of Snohomish County farmers, he said. More farmers may need to use greenhouses and hoop houses to extend the growing season.
There are other solutions for farmers who can’t occupy a permanent stall year-round. A farmer could sublet his spot for a seasonal use, such as Christmas wreaths, Postema said.
Organizers do expect that some amount of produce will need to be trucked in from outside Western Washington. They also expect to draw farmers from neighboring counties.
The issue of how much it will cost farmers to sell their goods at the market is a significant one. That’s still being negotiated. It’s the first thing nearly every farmer asks about, Postema said.
Farmer Mark Lovejoy of Garden Treasures sells his produce directly to customers at his farm in Arlington or at seasonal farmers’ markets, including the Snohomish Farmers Market.
Profit margins in farming are thin, and the amount he has to pay to rent a space is a significant expense. He expects 4 to 7 percent of his total gross sales annually will go toward paying for market costs.
“It’s really competitive and you have to watch every cost,” Lovejoy said.
Anything that draws attention to local produce is a good thing, he said. If people show up and buy the produce, local farmers are ready to step up production. He said the market will likely be an excellent venue for agricultural products such as meats, fish and cheese.
Lovejoy sees some significant challenges. Indoor market space will likely cost more than a seasonal market. There’s the additional cost of hiring someone to man the space. And he’s not sure if customers will be satisfied with the limited crops that can be grown locally in the winter months.
He also wondered if customers will show up in the numbers needed to buy the produce he grows at fair prices. It may take a number of years to build up the numbers necessary for a farmer to sustain the additional costs of participating an indoor market.
“A market is like a restaurant,” Lovejoy said. “And a lot of them fail.”
It’s not clear how the market may affect the nine seasonal farmers’ markets that operate in Snohomish County.
Karen Erickson manages both the Snohomish and Everett farmers’ markets, which operate outdoors in the warmer months.
She supports anything that keeps food local but has concerns about the viability of the indoor market, particularly of the ability of local farmers to provide enough produce in the winter months.
Even in May and June, there are weeks when farmers call her to cancel because the weather was too wet and not enough produce is ready.
“We don’t have enough information about the model,” she said. “It’s a pie-in-the-sky idea. To all of us that do this, there are so many issues. If the sun doesn’t shine here, we don’t have food.”