Maybe you’ve noticed the commotion under the Higgins St. bridge Saturday mornings. Maybe you’ve heard the live music, or glanced down from the bridge at the people investigating the amoebic spread of tables and canopies expanding into the parking lot and into the shady crevices. What you’re seeing is a recent manifestation of a phenomenon that’s as old as anything human. This is the market, a place where people come to trade.
The official name is the Clark Fork River Farmer’s Market, though it might be an uphill battle to make that name stick. Most people seem to call it the “meat market.”
Not because it’s a great place to meet, shmooze and possibly even hook up. It’s the meat market because, unlike the older, established market at the north end of Higgins, this one allows the selling of meat, including beef, lamb, pork, chicken and sausage. This market was created with the specific intention of marketing local meat products, and while there is meat for sale, there is also a full line of vegetables, cherries, berries, baked goods, lemonade, felt hats, jewelry, empanadas, coffee drinks, Thai food…anything goes at the meat market. If it’s legal, you can trade it there.
The mind behind this new market is Heidi DeArment, Ranch Lands Protection Coordinator for the Clark Fork Coalition. Within her organization’s mission of working to protect and restore water quality in the Clark Fork River basin, DeArment’s job is to help encourage sustainable ranching.
Unfortunately, the economics of cattle these days don’t favor operations managed for environmental sustainability. Nor do they encourage the production of meat that isn’t, frankly, disgusting if you think about it. A look at Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation will convince you that it means something to know where your meat has been.
In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser details the story of factory-raised meat, from the ranchers, caught in a battery of strangleholds by IBP and ConAgra—the two major meat conglomerates—all the way to the fat kids getting fatter at McDonald’s. Schlosser describes the long hours and tough conditions in which chainmail-wearing, often illegal workers do the dirty work to animals and themselves, including some horrendous workplace-related injuries, while the meat passes through an assembly line of blood, shit, piss, fur, gut juices and vomit. This is the meat you’re likely eating if you don’t know where your meat has been.
For many ranchers, it’s hard to feel good about selling the animals they’ve birthed and raised into that system, especially for the money involved. But few feel they have any other choice but to buy into the system or sell out. And with land prices rising in the Clark Fork basin, selling out seems more and more likely. Thus, an important part of DeArment’s work is to help ease the backs of Clark Fork ranchers away from the wall.
“The development of ranch land in the Clark Fork threatens water quality,” she says. “We’re afraid that rising land prices will result in loss of ranch land.”
Meanwhile, the results of DeArment’s consumer research indicate a strong interest in local meat, though little is available. “Our hope,” she says, “is that if we can create a niche market for Clark Fork meat, it could help moderate development.”
This is about more than dollars. Few ranchers know what it’s like to look your market in the eye. The mutual thanksgiving between grower and eater, well-known to veggie hawkers, is part of the overall joy of the farmer’s market, and DeArment hopes to bring this joy into the lives of Clark Fork ranchers and carnivores.
We’re standing in the middle of the bubbling market, and DeArment is praising the hard work of the market’s board of directors, as well as market manager Mary Ellen Carter. Meanwhile, kids are going nuts in the “Moonwalk,” an enclosed, inflatable, bouncing, bubble thing. Bob Wire is strumming Johnny Cash tunes while the nearby river and the shade of the bridge conspire to keep the air cool. This week, the Rockport Hutterite colony, near Great Falls, has sent a school bus full of vegetables, chickens, bread, homemade noodles and Indian-style fry bread. New faces are common at the Meat Market, a market that has a design for change built in—including term limits for the board members.
The diversity and laid-back atmosphere at the new market is welcomed by vendors and customers alike, many of whom complain about the rules and restrictions at the old market. Some simply see the new market as a way to double their exposure.
Tsufu Moua and his family have booths in both markets. As I question him about the differences between the old and new markets, he stays expertly above politics. “Since it’s not the main market, it’s different,” he says. “It’s beautiful; beautiful people walking around, beautiful vegetables. You just want to indulge yourself in the aroma of this beautiful farmer’s market.”
The Clark Fork River Farmer’s Market runs from 8 AM to 1 PM Saturdays, under the Higgins St. bridge.