10 years ago, you could not purchase meat, seafood or poultry at farmers markets in King County. Today, we rely upon farmers markets for the highest quality meat, seafood and poultry produced by true artisans who care about the products they produce and the animals they husband.
In February of 1999, during the annual Washington State Farmers Market Conference at Pike Place Market, a workshop was convened to discuss how to make meat, seafood and poultry sales possible at farmers markets. Attendees at this meeting including USDA inspectors, state food safety regulators, King County health officials, market managers, ranchers, and myself, the newly appointed Executive Director of the Washington State Farmers Market Association. As workshop facilitator, I began the discussion with two instructions: that we were there to figure out how to bring meat, seafood and poultry to farmers markets; and that we would not accept “no” as an answer. The USDA inspectors in attendance refused to speak — they would not answer a single question yes, no or maybe. But everyone else seemed enthusiastic.
Interestingly, later that year, I found myself in a conversation with a member of King County Health Department’s meat inspection program — yes, King County is one of the few counties in the U.S. that has one — at the University District Farmers Market. In this conversation, the County staffer said to me she thought people shouldn’t eat animals unless they were willing to travel out to the farm and look the animals in the eyes first. In response, I pointed across the street to the University District Safeway store, and I told her that every Saturday, after they got their fruits and vegetables at the farmers market, many people walked across the street to Safeway to purchase factory-farmed meat. These city folk were very unlikely to ever go to a farm to meet their dinner, I told her. So, if people are going to eat meat anyway, why shouldn’t we give them the option of purchasing that meat directly from farmers who are treating their animals with care and are producing a healthy product?
In June 2000, King County Executive Ron Sims, at the request of farmer Michaele Blakely of Growing Things Farm and Chris Curtis of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance on the King County Agriculture Commission, convened the King County Farmers Market Health Regulation Task Force. At its first meeting, County inspector Jim Thompson, who had participated in the 1999 workshop, presented what he thought was a regulatory solution to allow meat sales at King County markets by adapting language in the mobile meat sales code. His proposal was enacted with only minor revisions by the King County Board of Health in August 2001.
Then, in late 2001, the first ever USDA inspected Mobile Slaughter Unit (MSU) came on line. Based in Bow, it was built by the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative using USDA grant funding in order to address the extraordinary stress put on both farmers and their animals when transporting animals from the San Juan Islands to processing facilities on the mainland. Consider that Washington had only five such facilities at the time in the entire state that would accept less than 50 animals for processing at one time, and the two in Western Washington were both significantly far south of Seattle. The MSU, by contrast, was designed to be able to travel from farm to farm, and to fit on ferries, so that farmers could humanely dispatch their animals right on the farm, reducing the stress on farmer and animal alike. And it offered the additional benefit of allowing farmers to compost byproducts from the process right on the farm, instead of it being added to feed and pet foods via rendering plants.
With the new King County code in place, and the MSU online, a revolutionary shift took place at King County farmers markets. Indeed, it changed the way all of us will look at farmers markets forever. The idea that farmers markets could offer more than just fruits and vegetables seemed unthinkable to many before 2001, and yet now, farmers markets are rife with all manner of farm products, from cheese and milk to grain and flour, from fermented foods to wine. Wine was not legal at farmers markets in Washington until 2003. The first grain products entered King County farmers markets in 2007. And yet it is hard to imagine our dear Ballard Farmers Market without these products today.
Today, Washington has four MSUs, half of all those nationwide. Farms are investing in infrastructure for on-farm processing of all manner of poultry. Fishing vessels no longer must serve at the mercy of large canneries and low prices. And we get to benefit from the pride and care these passionate, hard-working people put into their products, giving us the highest quality meat, seafood and poultry most of us have ever eaten. And they have helped us grow our Ballard Farmers Market into the #1 farmers market in the state, around which an extraordinary food-centric neighborhood has blossomed, from one end of Ballard Avenue to the other.
So today, when you pickup your beloved local meat, seafood and poultry direct from the producer, think about that day back in February 1999, when in essence a sort of Lexington & Concord event took place in the local food movement — when a group of people told, instead of asking, the USDA and local regulators that we wanted local meat at our markets. Because the rest, as they say, is now history!
There is much more waiting for you at your Ballard Farmers Market today. Just check the What’s Fresh Now! listings in the upper right-hand corner of this page for a more complete accounting of what is in season right now. But please note that due to our recent cold weather, some crops may not be available as anticipated.