visitors flock to Olympia for one of the
oldest farmers’ markets in the state
STORY AND PHOTOS BY JENNIFER CRAIN
It’s Thursday morning, the beginning of the market week, and Genine Bradwin is hauling produce to the Kirsop Farm stand at the Olympia Farmers Market. She stacks shelves with vegetables, laying out mustard-yellow soup beans, red winter wheat, and fluffy batches of microgreens. During harvest time, a farm employee works the stall four days a week at one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the state.
Later in the morning, visitors will crowd the aisles of the open-sided building where most of the market’s 80 stalls are shielded from the weather. They will marvel at mushroom logs and select the fattest bunches of arugula. Children will cluster around a man who twists long balloons into animal shapes, and families will gather at tables in the pavilion to eat off paper plates and listen to live jazz or bluegrass. Kids will dance to the music and race along the gravel paths in the neighboring demonstration garden, where visitors tour the sustainably planted plots or ask master gardener volunteers for pointers. Seven restaurant stalls serve up lunch on market days.
This may not sound unique—markets are often community hubs where people discover apriums or Romanesco broccoli and learn what to do with fennel. But the Olympia market, founded 40 years ago this season, is distinguished by more than beautiful food and community support; it’s unique for its long history, frequency, and vision. The market is open Thursday through Sunday from April through October, drawing locals and visitors alike. Among the state’s rich and varied market culture, Olympia stands out.
It’s a scenic place to visit, located near Budd Inlet at the southernmost tip of Puget Sound. Market visitors often grab a treat from one of the bakeries and walk down to the Port Plaza, which is visible from the west end of the market. From there, you can walk to the docks and scan the water for jellyfish, climb the viewing tower, or stroll to the marina along the boardwalk that connects the market area to downtown Olympia. But this desirable location did not come without effort.
The market began in 1973, outside a senior center, where volunteers fundraised by selling homegrown fruits and vegetables. Two years later, having outgrown their card tables and their original mission, the group incorporated as the Olympia Farmers Market and looked for a location. The market bounced from one spot to another for more than a decade. According to city lore, when the market board proposed a permanent location to the city council, the mayor said, “When pigs fly.” The tale has since become proverb; the market’s unofficial mascot is a winged pig.
When the board finally settled on the current site, city bonds funded the construction of the building, which was finished in 1996. The market is self-sustaining, but a three-way arrangement among the market, the city, and the Port of Olympia, who owns the land, keeps the market in its prime location near the water, a factor that has helped it flourish. Last year, the market welcomed a quarter of a million visitors, and sales totaled $5.1 million, the highest reported sales of any dedicated farmers’ market in the state.
Assistant manager Ashley Powell says the market supports small farms by giving them as many direct-sale hours as possible, a commitment that has turned the member-owned and -operated organization into a business incubator. Many farms use it as their sole venue while they establish growing practices and refine their business plans. Later, the market becomes a home base as they expand their regional presence.
“We built our production plan around the Olympia Farmers Market schedule,” says Bradwin, who has run Kirsop Farm with her husband, Colin Barricklow, for close to 20 years. “We were able to grow from one day to four days of market. It was just the greatest blessing in the world to become a vegetable farmer where there was already an established, successful market.”
Kirsop grows vegetables for its CSA program, wholesale accounts, and a bevy of other markets (including five in the Seattle area). But about half of Kirsop’s business is still built around sales at the Olympia market. Another market success story is Wobbly Cart Farm in Rochester, which has a reputation for unusual, and unusually beautiful, vegetables: red carrots, black tomatoes, chicory greens, and burdock root. Co-founder Joseph Gabiou learned about production and pricing during a three-year apprenticeship with another market farm, honing skills that set the stage for a stall of his own in Olympia and a wide platform that includes specialty crops for a number of high-profile Portland restaurants.
Powell notes that the Olympia market is a true farmers’ marketplace, with locally grown produce at the center of its operation. Unlike public markets, which allow imported items for resale (think bracelets from Mexico), or markets selling inexpensive produce from out of state or abroad, true farmers’ markets sell goods grown and made nearby.
“Without the farmers,” Powell notes, “we all become public markets or flea markets.”
The Olympia market allows only select reselling—primarily fruit from the eastern side of the state. These and the market’s value-added products—such as cheese, smoked salmon, and bread—are intended to attract customers and round out the market experience. But above all, the goal is to shore up farm sales. And it’s working.
“There’s a loyal, appreciative following at this market,” says Jennifer Belknap, co-owner of Rising River Farm. “A lot of the customers really care about supporting us.”
The market is using its success to launch new efforts to increase the public’s link to local foods—and offer even more to visitors. It’s looking at ways to winterize, and plans to purchase a projector to sponsor public film screenings on agriculture and sustainability. Longer-term goals include constructing a commercial kitchen, to rent out to food producers and use as a public venue for food-centered events.
“We’re interested in making this not just a farmers market,” Powell says, “but a food hub.”
Olympia Farmers Market
700 N. Capitol Way
April through October—Thursday through Sunday
November and December—Saturday and Sunday
January through March—Saturday
10am–3pm • olympiafarmersmarket.com
Jennifer Crain has shopped at the Olympia Farmers Market since her family moved to Olympia in 2006. She still thinks about a small display of local ginger root she found there once, as well as her own discovery of apriums, maitake mushrooms, and too many spicy greens to count. Learn more about her work at jennifercrain.com.