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Four-year-old Emma Burgess can’t stop when she bites into a juicy strawberry from the Corvallis Farmers Market.

Emma’s parents know that if they buy a box, they have to eat them quickly or Emma will get them all. They've been coming to the Saturday market since before she was born. Emma’s father, Michael Conrad, said she has never known a world without fresh produce and the Saturday Corvallis Farmers Market — and he hopes she never will.

“She has only ever had good, quality, fresh produce from here and places like this,” Conrad said. “I was raised on terrible food and never came to places like this as a kid. We at least want her to know what good food is like. If you show them what better flavor is, they’ll find it and they love it.”

It’s moments like these that remind Tom Denison, owner of Corvallis’ Denison Farms, of the true spirit of the farmers market.

“When I was growing up there wasn’t as much fresh produce and they ate a lot more canned stuff," Denison said. "And there was this widespread belief that kids don’t eat vegetables. So when you’re working here at the farmers market and you hear a child say, ‘Mom, can we get some more broccoli or some more of those turnips?' And the strawberries are a big draw for everybody. And when we have a carrot or tomato that gets kids excited about eating produce, we all feel really excited and that we’re doing something right.”

Dozens of families and hundreds of Benton County residents — and their dogs — flocked to the Corvallis Farmers Market on Saturday for the kickoff to the market’s 25th season. Hundreds more frequent the Saturday Farmers Market in Albany — the longest continually running market of its kind in Oregon, which celebrated the start of its 38th season Saturday.

Many vendors and market officials say that like the bright, sunny skies that met shoppers Saturday morning, the future of the markets in Oregon remains bright.

“We always had the hope and the vision that the markets would be something people loved," Denison said. "But if you told me 25 years ago that today’s markets would be as huge and popular as they are, it would’ve shocked me. I think getting the taste of that local, fresh food is just really powerful.”

Denison has co-owned Denison Farms with his wife since 1978 — the year the Albany market opened in the Water Avenue parking lot — and they have seen the rise of both markets and many changes over the years. But that love for local, fresh food has only gotten stronger, he said.

“When we first started going, it was people who grew up with freshly harvested food and they wanted to keep that in their lives,” he said. “It seems like there’s been a gradual change where farmers markets are places where young families take their kids for an outing. And they do it because they want that freshly harvested food.”

Gathering Together Farms marketer Laura Bennett helps provide samples of the farm’s fresh produce every Saturday. The 20-year-old Oregon State horticulture student says there are few perks better than seeing children enjoy the farmers markets.

“We’ve heard so many parents tell us that their children never ate vegetables before they tried them from the market and the way we cook them,” Bennett said. “People are learning how to eat vegetables. The kids are eating beets and radishes and growing up loving it.”

The seed is planted

In the spring of 1978, a few growers from Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties, known as the Mid-Willamette Growers Association, started selling their produce at the first Albany Farmers Market in the Water Avenue parking lot. It was the first open-air farmers market of the post-World War II era in Oregon. While other markets in Oregon would pop up and wither away, Albany's began to grow.

“Farmers markets are so delicate when they start. If people aren’t coming, the farmers stop coming and it dies. Or if the farmers start selling less, the people stop coming,” said Market Director Rebecca Landis, who runs the Corvallis and Albany markets. “In Albany, that didn’t happen. It’s really remarkable. The fact that it’s still there is sort of a testament to our stubbornness in a way.”

In 1981, the Mid-Willamette Growers Association tested the market in Corvallis and, with assistance from Community Services Consortium, opened the first Wednesday farmers market in the city near the downtown fire station. By 1987, the Corvallis and Albany markets would be two of only 12 in the state of Oregon. The Corvallis and Albany markets evolved over the years — Wednesday's Corvallis market used to be far more popular than its Saturday counterpart — but neither was ever in danger of closing, Landis said.

“Markets, just like the farms, always have ups and downs,” Landis said. “We didn’t really keep track of numbers back then, but from what I know, it was always popular here. Corvallis is unusually primed for such a thing. I don’t whether it’s because it’s a college town or what, but people here really appreciate it.”

The new seedlings

In the 1970s, the Kapuler family in Corvallis began purchasing hybrid seeds of tomatoes, growing them and then starting the process again each season, eventually creating a “dehybridized” cherry tomato. Owner and founder Alan Kapuler continued the process with other varieties of produce and started selling Peace Seeds at the beginning of the Corvallis markets.

Alan retired from the business a few years ago and today, his daughter Dylana Kapuler and Mario DiBenedetto have their own company, known as Peace Seedlings. The two are in their seventh year at the Corvallis market, and each season they bring new seeds and varieties of public domain plants commonly grown in other parts of the world that seem to thrive in Oregon. 

“My parents were among the founders here and I grew up coming to the market with my parents,” Dylana Kapuler said. “(The market) is a really great way to connect and communicate with the community. You learn a lot from your customers and it’s always important for us to have that interaction. Being a part of this bigger thing and keeping it going is really awesome.”

Dylana is one of several of a new generation taking the reins from the first generation of sellers at the market and offering a new vision of the market.

“And they encouraged us to start our own business and go in the direction we wanted,” she said. “I think people are really excited to try and see new things and learn about the possibilities and that the seeds are locally grown and available. It’s something that they’re supporting and it’s great.”

Sunny skies ahead

For farming, prognosticating always is a part of the job. But even the most seasoned farmers can’t always predict every change the weather might bring. Farmers and organizers of the Corvallis and Albany farmers markets say predicting the future of the markets is even more difficult. But Landis is predicting fair weather ahead for the immediate future.

“I feel a lot of gratefulness for the fact that we’ve had this good, long run and that there is no threat of it not going into the future. It’s important that I don’t break the chain,” she said. “There is a lot of uncertainty about our food supply around the country. The drought in California is a good point for reflection on that. We’re going to have to row through the climatic and weather that is thrown at us. That’s how it is in farming and that’s how it is with the farmers market.”

Denison said he could never have predicted the growing popularity of farmers markets around the country, but always had hope and optimism for the markets in Albany and Corvallis.

“It’s our job on the farm to forecast the future and we give it our best shot. But if you look back over any five or 10-year-period, I don’t think any farmer could’ve predicted where we are now,” said Denison. “But looking at it now, when I see more and more families coming to the market and really loving the taste of fresh produce, I’d say the future looks good.”

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