No Sad Goodbyes for Chris
By Jean Godden
Seattle is ranked as one of the top food cities in the country and you can blame it partly on Chris Curtis. Chances are that, if you've ever been to a farmers' market like the one on Sundays in West Seattle you've probably bumped into Chris, a trim woman with graying blond hair and endless energy.
Chris Curtis is executive director and founder of the Seattle Neighborhoods Farmers Market Alliance (SNFMA), an umbrella organization that supervises seven neighborhood markets. But she's far more than that. She's also a smiling, hands-on presence, walking between farm stalls, clipboard in hand, answering questions and picking up trash.
Chris opened Seattle's University District Farmers Market, the city's first neighborhood market, 25 years ago. Prior to that, she and her husband Tim owned and operated two movie houses and a Haagen-Dazs ice cream store in the University District. They sold their interests in the early 1990s and went on a "launch into retirement" car trip to California.
During their travels they visited local farmers' markets in California. Chris returned with a mission: Why not start something like that in Seattle? She had grown up in the Skagit County farmlands and saw a market as a way to bring farmers and city dwellers together, bridging the gap between rural and urban lives.
Back in Seattle, she assembled a group of farmers to talk about what would work for them. The group drew up plans, deciding that the focus would be on locally-grown produce and food, but no crafts, no pony rides and no kettle corn. (Chris actually likes kettle corn.)
The University District farmers' market debuted May 29, 1993 in the courtyard at University Heights Community Center. Incredibly, some 800 customers showed up on the market's first day. With a success on her hands (every Saturday from May to November), Chris took the next step. She set out to add eggs, dairy, meats and fish to the market. But she first had to work with the Seattle-King County Health Department to meet health and safety requirements.
She still remembers difficult negotiations that, at one point, had the health department ranged on one side of the table with food suppliers on the other side. But a spirit of cooperation developed and they were able to work together.
Once health department concerns were worked out, Chris began to hear from other neighborhoods that also wanted a farmers' market. Her Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance next opened markets in Columbia City on Wednesdays and in West Seattle on Sundays. The volunteer organization became a 501C3 nonprofit in 2001 and grew to supervise seven markets in Seattle and to cooperate with a dozen others in the region, including the popular Ballard Market.
In 2007, the University District market went year-round, a pattern that West Seattle followed. Then in 2013, the University District market celebrated its 20-year anniversary and moved to a new home on University Way. Occupying two blocks on an arterial street meant some complex negotiations, from arranging for electrical connections to moving bus routes. The organization ended up buying a Metro stop.
Markets that, for the first seven years, were headquartered in Chris Curtis's basement have expanded and flourished. There now are 120 farmers that sell in seven neighborhoods and attract half a million shoppers each year. The markets have fostered a "Fresh Bucks" program that helps both farmers and low-income customers. There's also a Good Farmers Fund that assists farmers when in need.
Seattle Neighborhood Farmers Markets Alliance is a success story that has few rivals; but it's also reached a slightly bittersweet moment. Chris has announced that, after a quarter of a century, she is retiring in June as the executive director. She says she'll stick around long enough to help a new director.
Retirement or not, she is still talking farmers' markets. She points out that, while Seattle has an Office of Economic Development, there is no farmers' market representative at City Hall. She has ideas about what to do for people who don't have a market nearby. She speculates, "Maybe we should try a mobile market." She also likes the idea of using shuttle buses to take fans to markets. It's hard to see Chris ever really saying goodbye. And that's a good thing.