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What's ripe to sell at James Beard market?

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - James Beard Public Market director Ron Paul checks out locally sourced apples at his neighborhood grocery store, Food Front in Northwest Portland.Pop quiz: Which is local?

a) A Portland craft distiller uses grain from Kentucky that is distilled in Indiana and bottled and branded here.

b) A Portland cheesemonger opens a shop with cheeses he hand-selects from all over the world.

c) A Portland chocolate maker visits Ecuador to hand-select cacao beans, which he brings here to hand-grind, roast and temper into a dark chocolate bar.

What is local? Depends on who you ask.

None of these artisan entrepreneurs would fit the requirements to be a regular vendor at the Portland Farmers Market, since their ingredients are not grown by hand on their own land within 400 miles from Portland.

But they could be candidates for space at the future James Beard Public Market.

Twelve years in the making, the market — which aims to be a major icon and economic boost for the city — won’t open at the west end of the Morrison Bridge for another four or five years, pending the outcome of a major fundraising drive.

But Ron Paul, its founder and executive director, has been wrestling with the all-important question, “What is local,” for a long time.

He and the market’s board of directors are about to set their own definition that farmers, chefs, artisan food and beverage makers must heed.

The board will write it into policy and expects to issue a call for vendors in about 18 months. The process is starting early because a public jury will help curate the market’s vendors based on these standards.

Forty to 60 vendors will get three- to five-year leases at the year-round market, which will occupy three blocks that are now surface parking lots. Melvin Mark Development, which is planning a residential, hotel or office tower above the market, is pursuing LEED Gold status for the complex.

Local rules more flexible

So how will the James Beard Market define local?

Paul says that as long as vendors fully disclose their products’ points of origin, it’s about “the foodshed that supports Portland’s appetite.” That foodshed extends into Eastern Oregon and Washington and down into Northern California. It won’t include Seattle, a major metropolitan area with its own foodshed.

Alaskan salmon would be OK because they migrate. Lemons, limes and oranges can come from California, Florida and Mexico, because they’re not grown here.

The point, Paul says, is to make it easier for people — from Portland and the suburbs — to shop more frequently for fresher food.

Labels detailing where the products come from and how they were produced will let shoppers consider the sustainability of the products, however they want to measure it.

Take the tomato, for example. Which is more sustainable: the one grown in Canby and trucked into Portland, or the one grown in Klamath Falls in a geothermal greenhouse and put on a train to Portland?

“There’s no answer yet,” Paul says. “Customers deserve to know exactly what they’re buying. The price of entry (for vendors) is being able to accurately label those things yourself.”

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Paul greets Food Front produce buyer and merchandiser Josh Alsberg at the stores Northwest location.Besides, he posits, by the time the market is open, “there will be so many apps available, you can scan it and see the pedigree of the farmer and who his first-born is.”

Not in competition

The James Beard Market and the Portland Farmers Market see each other as complementary.

“I think it’ll be a perfect icon for defining who we are (as a region),” Farmers Market Executive Director Trudy Toliver says. “I’m hopeful it will be a place for some of our farmers to highlight their products.”

One facet Toliver will watch closely is how the Beard Market holds its vendors accountable for the claims they make.

“If they say they’re only buying from Oregon and Washington, I expect to see that label,” she says. “It’s got to be transparent.”

Over time, Toliver says the farmers market staff has been able to monitor vendors by getting to know them personally and by visiting their farms.

Hot-food sellers at the farmers market must source at least 25 percent of their ingredients from locally grown products, and “many do much more than that,” Toliver says. For instance, Salvador Molly’s can’t get its masa locally but its chicken and veggies are local.

Makers of hot sauce, pickles, preserves and salad dressings also are held to the 25 percent rule. “We just met with vendors and went through their list of ingredients. When they can get local, we ask them to do that,” Toliver says.

Paul says the Beard Market will hold its vendors accountable, through spot checks of tags on the produce and via peers at the market. “Farmer John or Monger John isn’t going to want to see his neighbor skimping on the rules,” he says.

Foodie gets political

After an early career as a Portland chef, Paul put food on the back burner and got into politics.

He had been a citizen volunteer on a task force under then-City Commissioner Charlie Hales’ watch, and served as Hales’ chief of staff from 1999 to 2002.

From his City Hall roost, Paul realized the power of public investments. He thought a food market — which he’d dreamed of since his years as a chef — should be a public market, not a private development.

He was able to convene a group of 30 stakeholders who met monthly for two and a half years to define a public market, and determine how to proceed.

Hales, now mayor, remains a big supporter of the public market, although the city and county have not yet made any cash donations to the project.

Thanks to state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, the Legislature appropriated $250,000 in seed funding. In 2015, Paul says there will be more talk with legislators about capital funding.

To date, the market has raised $2 million in cash and $1 million in in-kind contributions.

Organizers have 37 months to raise $25 million to $30 million in public and private funds, and the clock started nine months ago.

Paul calls it a daunting challenge, but he and veteran fundraiser Lucy Buchanan, hired this summer, will cast a wide net.

This month they’ll set up office space half a block from the market site. They’ll begin using social media and will launch marketing under the direction of local legend Jelly Helm, known for his Portland Timbers work.

The public market will be more than a place to showcase the best of the region’s food, Paul says. It will define what food and drink means to the Portland region — and making it transparent for all.

“Nothing is pure,” Paul says. “You can’t be dogmatic in the food world without putting yourself in a small box. You want to be sustainable, and you want people to make smart

decisions.”