For garden-fresh food, hit the streets.

Farmers market season kicks off this month, drawing produce-hungry shoppers out of grocery stores and into market vendor NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Sandro Chavez of Cornelius harvests rhubarb for Wednesdays first farmers market of the season in Forest Grove.

Dirt-coated radishes, handmade soaps scented with Washington County rosemary and moist bouquets with freshly-snipped stems will fill the streets of western Washington County almost every day of the week by June.

As markets grow in popularity, so do the variety of vendors and attractions.

Markets serve as a community connector, where people can gather and talk, meet the farmer who grows their food, take advantage of cheap entertainment and learn about new ways to cook both classics and foods they’ve never tried before, said Laura Barton, trade development manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

More markets are offering free entertainment such as live music, demonstrations and kids’ activities.

“It’s a great way for kids to try new things and new flavors,” Barton COURTESY PHOTO: BRIAN HARRIS - Krista Olsen-Rahf of Mountainside Herbal Nursery started the season at the Hillsboro farmers market, and is getting ready for Forest Groves market, where she will sell a wide variety of unusual herbs.

The Market Sprouts Kids Club, sponsored by New Seasons, is open to kids ages 4 to 12, and offers healthy food activities. Kids can participate at Hillsboro, Forest Grove, North Plains, Beaverton and Tigard markets.

“As we become more removed from our food source, there’s a hunger to connect again with the land,” said Barton, who estimates the market comeback started about 10 years ago.

A rarity

The Hillsboro Farmers’ Market celebrates its 31st anniversary this year, and has grown from a handful of vendors to an average of about 70. The market attracts about 8,000 visitors a year.

“Thirty years ago or more, [farmers markets] were a rarity,” said Farmers’ Market events coordinator Erin Greene, who expects to see continued market participation and eventually more Hillsboro markets. “Now they are seen as an integral part of a community.”

In Hillsboro, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday markets brought in about $1.2 million to vendors in 2012, according to coordinator Greene.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture records more than 7,000 farmers markets nationwide and about 100 in Oregon alone, a 17 percent increase in the number of markets across America from 2010 to 2011.

The nationwide growth of markets is leading the direct sales trend — Community Supported Agriculture operations, roadside stands and farm stores — allowing farmers to cut out the middleman, keep more of their dollars and get to know their customers.

According to the most recent U.S. agriculture census, direct-to-consumer sales totaled $274.2 million in 2007 in the Far West region — Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Nevada — up from $180 million in 2002.

“It’s all about knowing the face behind your food,” said Anna Curtin of the Oregon Farmers Market Association, adding that markets have risen to customers’ expectations when it comes to quality, atmosphere and food safety precautions.

Variety has also played a key role in market resurgence.

According to Curtin, market vendors have been raising unusual crops, using greenhouses and row covers to extend the season. They’ve also marketed products creatively, generating a demand for produce that’s not readily available in stores. The average market boasts more than 200 crop varieties, Curtin said.

And it’s not just produce. Flowers, cheese, meat, eggs, crafts, art, preserves and baked goods are now market staples.

Produce to customers

Although markets are a boon to business for many farmers, they’re not without challenges.

When farmers start relying on markets to make sales, they risk running out of time to farm, Curtin explained, as growers are forced to double as salesmen.

Yet many small-scale farmers, such as Cornelius nursery operator James Crawford, flock to farmers markets because they allow growers who don’t produce hundreds of pounds daily to make a living.

“Most stores don’t deal with less than 1,500 pounds of produce a day and they do everything through a central hub,” said Crawford, who’s been selling at markets since 1982. “Markets are a good way to get produce to customers; they fill a void to sell food that may otherwise be hard to market.”

Crawford sells a variety of fruits and vegetables, but blueberries are his specialty when they ripen in summer. Early in the season, he sells blueberry plants as well as asparagus, rhubarb and potatoes at several markets, including Hillsboro’s.

When he started out, Crawford had no intention of selling at markets, but he’s adapted his business entirely to them — as well as his “u-pick” operation.

“I just love my little farm,” said Crawford, who rarely has to go to the grocery store in the summer. “And I enjoy the customers I’ve gotten to know. We try to bring the best we possibly can.”

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