LANE COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS REGIONAL FARMERS MARKET AND AG CENTER
The idea of building a year-round farmers market has been a popular idea in Eugene for several years now, but so far it's just been talk. Right now, however, there is an opening in the discussion and a location at the Lane County Fairgrounds practically begging for a farmers market. Along with several other county operations, the Lane County Fairgrounds will face severe budget cuts due to the likely termination of Federal funding for the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. The County Commissioners will attempt to find ways to secure maintenance costs and possible upgrades for the Fairgrounds by the end of 2009, but at this point the Fairgrounds is in sad disrepair and struggles to make ends meet. The loss of the Federal funding will simply underscore the economic woes of the county and eliminate any possible safety net for the Fairgrounds. In light of this situation, including a year-round regional farmers market and agricultural center as part of a general make-over of the Lane County Fairgrounds and as a way to bolster Fairgrounds finances merits serious consideration.
Fairgrounds: Sustainability has been an increasing part of the Eugene dialogue now for several years. The Sustainable Business Initiative completed its study in 2006 and Eugene's first Sustainability Commission was formed last fall. Central to the discussion is the idea that business as usual just won't work in a future with ten dollar a gallon gasoline and increasing economic pressure on middle and lower class Oregonians. Growth for the sake of growth no longer makes sense. Progress must be measured in more practical ways, and there may be no better place to start than in a real and visionary makeover of the Lane County Fairgrounds.
Instead of looking at the Fairgrounds as a fixer-upper, squeezing dollars here and there simply to get from this year to the next, the Fairgrounds should be viewed as the perfect opportunity to do to the Fairgrounds campus what must be done to the entire city of Eugene–make it a model of sustainability. Enhancements like photovoltaic panels, solar water heating, a greenhouse, water catchment systems, community gardens, permaculture displays, and fruit trees would be great additions to what has become a city eyesore. Current problems with the heating and cooling of the Fairgrounds buildings could be addressed through active and passive solar design. Instead of paying for the piecemeal hauling away of livestock manure, garbage, and hit-or-miss recycling, a whole system recycling program could be put in place to service the entire Fairgrounds and all its events. Organic wastes could be composted on site into valuable resources, garden inputs, high nutrient soil, even energy production. The Fairgrounds could become the embodiment of green thinking, an educational tool as well as a multi-purpose events center, making it a Eugene attraction in itself, a working demonstration of what might be done in the center of any forward-thinking suburban neighborhood.
Year-Round Farmers Market: The perfect complement to this new green Fairgrounds would be a year-round, in-door, out-door regional farmers market and AG center. More than just another farmers market, this could act as regional market hub and farm sales support service, while also providing an important and pragmatic reaffirmation of the urban to farm connection that the Lane County Fairgrounds has always been. Other locations for a year-round farmers market have been discussed, but the Fairgrounds is available now and has every necessary logistical advantage. It sits just a few blocks from the city center and is within walking or biking distance of over 10,000 Eugene residents. A LTD bus line runs past the Fairgrounds' entry on Thirteenth Street. A main branch of Eugene's system of bike paths cuts across the south edge of the Fairgrounds' campus, and there's plenty of easy access parking already available at the site.
Imagine a full-service farmers market right there on Thirteenth Street. One hundred and twenty permanent interior vending stalls, forty temporary stalls outside, plus an array of anchor businesses–a fish market, a local meat shop, poultry and dairy outlets, a local bakery, winery outlets, a beanery. Add amenities like a certified commercial kitchen, a walk-in refrigerator, easy access loading docks, bathrooms and shower facilities, options for restaurants and meetings spaces, and lots and lots of fresh air, fresh produce, and natural light. This could be Eugene and Lane County's version of the Pike Street Market. Yes, we can throw fish and crab here too!
And it's totally possible. A year-round farmers market and adjoining regional AG center at the Fairgrounds is an idea that the County Commissioners have already spoken about and considered. The property is owned by the county and wouldn't have to be bought. The regional AG center would include offices for the Farmers Market, the Extension Service, the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Oregon Department of Agriculture–Weeds and Insect Divisions, the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition, WIC, the Nutritional Education Program, and the Forestry Department. Rental payments for these offices and the market's anchor businesses would offset building costs and provide a steady infusion of income to the operation of the Fairgrounds. If the farmers market were maintained and run by the Oregon State University Extension Service, another county operation in need of funding, the Extension Service would be able to support itself, while also continuing to provide its fine classes on ways to grow, cook, and preserve food. This is the complete package for a sustainable Eugene.
Economics At bottom, a year-round regional farmers market any where in Eugene is a sound idea. With the increasing cost of petroleum, with the rising cost of food, the gradual transformation of Willamette Valley agriculture from grass seed production to food crops is in our future–no matter what we might do. Regional food security makes sense not only to ensure we have something to eat, but also as a smart way to retool the economy of the south Willamette Valley. A regional farmers market with accessory food processing and storage is the smartest thing we could possibly do in these changing times.
Could a regional farmers market really gross enough money to make such an idea financially feasible?
Forty-eight million dollars is spent on food in Lane County each month. More than ninety-five percent of those food dollars are spent on products that come from outside the Willamette Valley–almost all of it bought at franchise supermarkets like Albertsons, Fred Meyers, or Safeway. Existing farmers markets and roadside farm vendors provide barely two percent of what we eat here in Lane County. An enhanced regional farmers market could increase that number many fold, taking in as much as $2 million per month–money that would otherwise be funneled out of Oregon to large international food conglomerates.
So in a sense the money is already here in Lane County to build and support a year-round regional farmers market and AG center. We're just putting that money into the wrong pockets! Building a regional farmers market would be the first step to the eventual make-over of the entire Fairgrounds. The time is ripe. Let's do this now.