By Alexandra Schaefers
It’s not easy to get Rebecca Landis to talk about herself. As the director of the Corvallis and Albany farmers’ markets she would rather tell you about the dried heirloom beans, Dakota Black Popcorn, and free-range meats you can now buy at the market along with your fruits and vegetables. She would rather tell you how the market sells only agricultural products from the six counties surrounding Corvallis and about the Sustainability Coalition’s goal for people to make 40 percent of their diets local products. It’s understandable; she did give up a comfortable career to take on a job usually performed by 20-somethings or retired folks for a season or two because she is passionate about serving the community and local farmers.
Landis began with the markets as a volunteer in 1991. At the time, the Mid-Willamette Valley Growers Association ran the Wednesday Farmers’ Market at the fairgrounds and Ron Spico was beginning an effort to get a Saturday market going in Corvallis, a need many farmers had expressed. “I’ve been here a month and my husband gets us signed up to help with this thing,” says Landis, who’d moved with him from Austin, Texas where she worked in legislative research. They helped start the market over the next few years while Larry Landis worked full-time at OSU and Rebecca worked full-time at the Community Services Consortium. In ’94 her husband saw a need for the market to have a dedicated manager. ‘That’s crazy,” Rebecca told him. “No one will do that. You don’t have enough money.” A year later the couple worked out the details so Rebecca could give up her salary to become the first paid market director. It was a part-time position with minimal reimbursement, so she also freelanced as a journalist. The Saturday Farmers’ Market flourished under Rebecca’s direction and in 1998 she stopped pursuing new writing and editing gigs to work full-time as the director for both Corvallis markets and the Albany farmers’ market.
The market has changed a lot in her 20 seasons as director. It moved around town a few times before settling into its permanent home on the renovated waterfront. It has expanded to include prepared foods, meat, dried beans, and grains. There is live music, cooking demonstrations, and a community table for gardeners and part-time farmers who can’t run a full booth. SNAP is now accepted as payment. There is a website with an interactive map and product-search feature. Now more young shoppers care about local food and add to the more than 5,000 shoppers who visit the market most weeks. The number of shoppers has risen dramatically in 20 seasons and it shows in the festive atmosphere; the market is the happening place to be in Corvallis on Saturday mornings.
I asked Rebecca what motivated her to leave behind her work in state governments (her undergrad is in journalism and her master’s in government) for a job most people would treat as a volunteer or internship position. She said it was because she saw that Corvallis “had the makings of a marvelous market. We have the most incredible agricultural valley that has not been swallowed up by development.” Although Oregon does have laws to protect farmland, Landis believes the real protection is in making it possible for people to earn at least some of their income from the land. She also feels she can make more of an impact on the community as the market director than she could working in government. But the most rewarding part is, “having relationships with people who devote their life to growing good food.”
I asked Rebecca about her own cooking habits, wondering if she actually has time to enjoy the foods she works so hard to bring to the community. The Landises often start dinner after dark and make simple dishes that accommodate the ingredients they have on hand from their own small farm in South Corvallis or from the market. “I rarely make a sauce,” says Landis, who admits their meals can sometimes be kind of weird, but use a minimum of processed foods. “We scrutinize every meal we eat,” she says, “and pat ourselves on the back for its local content.” Since she doesn’t have time to stand around watching a pot, she has adopted the Crock-Pot as a best friend in the kitchen and admits to having burned many a pot of beets to a nasty black mess. She enjoys using an app by Mark Bitman which helps her come up with recipes for the day’s ingredients.
The biggest challenge of running the market is finding space for all the qualified farmers and Landis is already planning an expansion. She doesn’t expect her job will ever be easy; there will always be things to improve for the farmers and community. Also, the vast majority of people in our community don’t yet shop locally. There is plenty to be done, educating folks about cooking with fresh foods, enticing them to replace large quantities of processed meats with healthier portions of fresh free-range meats, and inviting them to participate in growing the local economy.