Camas Farmer's Market gains foothold

Focus on locally grown, fresh foods has made it a Wednesday destination

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

If you go

What: Camas Farmer’s Market

Where: Northeast Fourth Avenue downtown, between Everett and Franklin streets.

When: 3 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, through Sept. 28.

Information: 360-838-1032, http://camasfarme...

CAMAS — On a delightful early evening, pedestrians reclaim a downtown patch of Northeast Fourth Avenue.

Young singles peruse produce and other edibles for sale. Someone softly plays acoustic guitar, lending to the mellow mood.

Parents push strollers and tote infants on shoulders. Other couples swap gardening or cooking tips with vendors, sample goods and stroll the city block that runs between City Hall and the Camas Public Library.

In its fourth year, the Camas Farmers Market has carved out a comfortable east county niche.

From 3 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, it’s a hub of fresh and organic fruits and vegetables, other foods, potted plants and fresh-cut flowers. And, an anchor for families and others who relish the market scene.

“I’ve been coming for three years now,” said Kim Servier, 46, of Camas, seated on the cool library lawn.

“It’s a nice thing to do, midweek. We listen to the music and get something to eat and let the kids run on the grass,” Servier said, watching her son, Travis, 5, frolic with other youngsters.

A friend, Jenniel Thompson, 32, of Washougal sat nearby, tending to her own boy, Tyler, 4.

Servier loves the freshly cooked tamales from one food stand, a market staple; Thompson had just tried her very first Greek gyro sandwich.

It’s that embrace of new foods, recipes, plant varieties and growing techniques, and focus on organic and locally grown foods, that makes the Camas attraction popular, said Alicia McAvay, market coordinator.

“It’s become sort of a Wednesday destination for families and kids,” McAvay said. It’s a modest, accessible gathering where shoppers “can talk one-on-one with vendors” more readily than at crowded Vancouver or Portland venues, she said.

The give-and-take is a big draw for 50-something couple Magnus and Jo Homestead, upper Washougal River residents who’ve become devotees.

This evening, the pair bought starter plants for tomato, beets and cucumbers, squash and cilantro, including a vining tomato plant suggested by one vendor. Plus, two tamales to go.

“It’s what villages and communities should be. It’s neat to see the movement going,” said Magnus Homestead, a big fan of local markets since he acquired the habit in Portland years ago. “Being on Wednesdays, it allows people to integrate it into their workdays,” he said.

Homestead praised the hyper-local focus. Besides one Yakima Valley berry grower, all vendors hailed from Clark County, or nearby Beaverton and Corbett, Ore. That harkens to childhood, when his father took him to Seattle’s rowdy but authentic Pike Place Market, he said.

The Camas version is “not a tourist market, but the real thing,” Homestead said.

The “real thing” is what lured novice vendors Kathleen and Jeff Booren, youthful retirees who now run the Foxfire Farm out of Brush Prairie.

Foxfire has ventured into community-supported agriculture, starting small with two customer shares. This also is the farm’s first exposure to marketgoers, Kathleen Booren said.

“I wanted to see what the demand is and what people wanted,” she said. Since late May, she’s added pepper, tomato and beet starts to some full-grown spinach, with more to come. “Tomatoes, that’s what I have a love for and a knack for growing.”

She gets a thrill out of introducing new foods and ideas.

“It’s exciting to hand a piece of Chinese cabbage to a youngster who’d never heard of it, much less tried any cabbage, and (to hear), ‘Yum, I like it,’” she said.

It’s no accident. McAvay and other organizers dwell not just on families (supervised arts and craft tables and other activities occupy children while parents shop) but also nurturing local start-ups, such as Foxfire.

“We try to incubate first-year farmers,” McAvay said. The agriculturally based market (no bird houses or wind chimes for sale, here) is “perfect for that,” she said. Paper Tiger Coffee Roasters, which now operates a busy shop on Grand Boulevard in Vancouver, cut its teeth at the Camas market, she noted.

The market has worked hard on community outreach to encourage healthier eating and cooking based on fresh foods.

There’s a cookbook exchange table, cooking demonstrations, and the market has teamed with several community groups to spread word and distribute WIC food-purchase vouchers to reach low-income and other consumers unfamiliar with street markets, McAvay said.

Camas City Hall support for marketing and outreach has ratcheted down from $21,000 at the start to about $200 this year. Finding new donors or grant dollars for such time-consuming work is not easy, McAvay said. “As we’re seeing more and more people relying on our products, we’ve got (fewer) resources.”

But, don’t expect the market to stumble.

Business owners who front the nonprofit Downtown Camas Association chip in $4,000 each year. Based on surveys and backed by the city, downtown leaders years ago made a farmers market their top priority, said Carrie Schulstad, owner of The Uncommon Gift, a Fourth Avenue fixture. There’s no erosion of support for a market still “in its infancy,” she said.

“The thing about the market is that it absolutely serves everyone,” Schulstad said, whether “vulnerable” adults or young children. “It provides a gathering for everyone in the community to come together,” she said.

“If you have something like this where they know where their food comes from, and catch them when they’re young and they grow up that way, you have a healthier community. And, that’s our goal,” she said.