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Cultivating A Farmers’ Market

Community leaders explore benefits of
promoting local produce growers

By Don Ward
Editor

(April 2002) MADISON, Ind. – Dave Adams spent many Saturday mornings last summer mingling with people at the farmer’s market on Jefferson Street in downtown Madison.
But the Madison Main Street Program director wasn’t there necessarily to buy or sell the fresh produce displayed on card tables and truck tailgates. Adams was drawn to the community atmosphere created each week by this eclectic crowd of farmers, townspeople and tourists.

Farmers Market Cover

While Adams may appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit displayed by these small farm owners and the home-grown goods they provide, he sees the potential that an expanded, more formally organized farmer’s market might pose for drawing even more people downtown.
And he’s not alone. Main Street Program and city government officials all over Indiana are beginning to study the connection between farm and community as an untapped resource for strengthening commercial enterprise by drawing on their county’s agricultural roots.
“We want to do everything we can to create a fun and exciting atmosphere, so it’s not just a produce market but a whole experience for people,” Adams said. “And we want it to be profitable for growers. I see it growing into something really big for us.”
The USDA reports a 63 percent increase in farmers’ markets from 1994 to 2000. The 2000 National Farmers’ Market Directory lists 2,800 farmers’ markets operating in the United States.
The Madison farmers market, which has operated for years, has experienced a recent revival, with the number of spots possibly growing from 12 to 18 this summer, according to Beverly Armstrong, the City of Madison’s clerk-treasurer who has managed the market since 1987.
“Last year, we had more vendors than spots, so we hope to expand the market around onto Main Street this year,” said Armstrong, who plans to present the plan to the city council for a vote in April.
Farmers’ markets became the focus of attention on March 20 when more than 125 people from around the state took part in a daylong farmer’s market workshop at the Venture Out Business Center in Madison.
Workshop participants studied the recent changes in the area’s agriculture industry and the factors that have led to the rise in neighborhood farmers’ markets. The event attracted produce farmers and officials from local governments, universities and agricultural entities who support the idea of building on this grassroots commodity already present in rural communities. Dozens of Indiana towns were represented.
And with money becoming available through federal programs designed to support alternative farming methods to tobacco, many of these community leaders realize the time to act is now.
“There’s such a potential here, and when we see the enthusiasm, we think it’s something that’s going to continue to grow,” said Linda Wood, regional director of the Southeastern Indiana Small Business Development Center.
Wood assisted officials from the Southern Indiana Rural Development Project in planning the workshop. Other sponsors included the Southern Indiana Small Business Development Center, Indiana Rural Development Council, Historic Hoosier Hills and the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service. SIRDP is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the rural counties of southern Indiana.
The event featured speakers and breakout sessions for producers and city leaders interested in starting or expanding their farmers’ markets.
“The one thing we noticed is that many people stayed afterward to network, so that indicated to us there is a lot of excitement here,” Wood said.
The workshop opened with a presentation by Dr. Timothy Woods, a University of Kentucky extension specialist, followed by comments from Joe Pearson, Indiana’s Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture, and a panel discussion of state experts, and concluded with breakout sessions for producers and local government officials interested in starting, expanding or improving their hometown farmers’ markets.
Officials from two southeastern Indiana communities – North Vernon and Bloomington – made presentations as the models for others to study.
Jennings County farmer and SIRDP member Bud Beesley made a presentation on the formation four years ago and eventual success of the North Vernon farmer’s market. It operates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays by a farmers’ market board and is situated along Hwy. 7 at the city park complex in the heart of town.
“When we started out, it was a big joke; nobody took us seriously,” said Beesley, a farmer and employee of the Jennings County Farm Bureau. “Now we have 26 producers and 400 customers a week.”
Bloomington’s farmers’ market, by contrast, is operated by the city’s parks department, according to parks official Marcia Veldman. Drawing on the town’s university population and eclectic atmosphere, the Bloomington farmers’ market features free, live entertainment or cooking demonstrations on weekends, plus an art and crafts fair four times a year. The market also provides space for local not-for-profit groups to distribute information and rent shopping carts.
The market began in 1975 with $350,000 in seed money from the city. Since then, the market has moved three times, eventually to its present location in a large parking lot adjacent to city hall. It operates Tuesdays and Saturdays with 15 vendors on average, plus a newly added bread stall and cafe to help keep people there longer, Veldman said.
While not presenters at the workshop, a third example is the privately-run, for-profit farmers’ market that owners Steve and Lisa Slonaker operate in Centerville, Ind., part of greater Richmond. Drawing on the talents of the local Amish population, the Slonakers help farmers grow produce by renting land plots on their 450 acres and then helping them transport their goods to town to be sold at their farmers’ market.
After researching farmers’ markets across the country and even in Europe, the Slonakers started their farmers’ market four years ago. Since then, they have fine-tuned the operation to bring together buyers and sellers. The market will have a dozen vendors this year, mostly Amish.
“We researched this for about six years before we opened,” Steve said. His advice for others is to stress variety in what is sold. “Everybody wants to grow corn and tomatoes, but you can’t do that. You need variety.”
The Centerville Farmers’ Market offers traditional produce as well as carrots, asparagus, fresh-cut flowers, herbs and many items, such as jams, jellies and flower mixes, that Lisa buys on the wholesale market to be sold in conjunction with produce.
“We look for anything we can find out in the community that you can’t find in the chain stores,” Lisa said. She also stresses the importance of appearance when it comes to setting up a farmers’ market.
“The setup has to look good. People don’t like to look at the back end of a pickup truck when they’re buying food,” she said.
Whether operated by its own organization of farmers, the parks department or a private entity, farmers’ markets seem to be the newest rage among city leaders hoping to generate more traffic in their downtowns. Some officials came to seek answers to problems associated with their hometown farmers’ market.
Scottsburg Mayor Bill Graham said his loosely run farmers’ market has operated for years on the main Hwy. 56 that runs past the courthouse square in the downtown.
But state highway officials say that because of traffic congestion, the farmers must move off Hwy. 56 this year. Graham hasn’t told the farmers the bad news yet, but he expects it will cause a stir. He is trying to find a solution to not only moving the market elsewhere but better organizing it to help both the farmers and the town.
“It’s not that we don’t want the farmers’ market, but we have state transportation officials all over us about this,” Graham said. “We’ve got to do something before our farmers’ market opens in April.”
In Madison, the issue is attracting buyers and sellers on a consistent basis. City officials recently applied for a $7,000 grant from the National Association of Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, but the request was denied. They had planned to use the money to buy cloth canopies for each vendor to set up on market days to protect them from the elements. No other funding source is available, although officials are looking for other grant possibilities. Some vendors use their own umbrellas now.
“Canopies would help make our days spent there more consistent, because right now whenever it rains, we have to leave,” said Canaan, Ind., organic farmer David Wadsworth. He has participated in the market for three years and says he is happy with the improvements planned for this year.
“There’s a lot of people putting a lot of effort into it right now,” he said.
Two years ago, the city council discussed the idea of moving the farmers’ market to Lytle Park, where there is more shade and concrete areas for vendors. But the idea was not received well by vendors, so it was dropped, Armstrong said.
Madison’s farmers’ market operates from late April to October, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. The biggest crowds are from 8 a.m to noon Saturday.
In the past, Madison vendors had to attend a spring auction of market spots along Jefferson Street to ensure a place to sell their goods. This year, city officials have eliminated the auction system and will assign spots, first to last year’s vendors and then to any new ones if spots are available, for $25 each.
Armstrong said the vendors provide a nice variety of items for sale, and that the city bought a new banner and some yard signs last year to promote the market.
In the fall, a group of youngsters from Girls Inc. came over to paint pumpkins provided by the farmers, Adams said. “We want to bring in more entertainment this year. We’ve had churches and other groups holding bake sales. And we want to do some educational things.”
Indiana is not alone in the farmers’ market trend. “We’re seeing more farmers’ markets forming statewide in Kentucky,” said UK’s Woods. His slide show presented the results of a feasibility study that UK had conducted on farmers’ markets in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky. The goal was to find out what worked and didn’t work, he said, because Kentucky legislators are interested in using some of the tobacco settlement money to establish regional marketing facilities to foster and support farmers’ markets and wholesaling.
“We’re seeing retailer consolidation, with fewer stores and big conglomerates, such as Wal-Mart and Kroger and Meyers, taking over. And there’s more space being devoted to produce in these stores in response to consumer interest in fresh produce,” Woods said.
That means more business for small produce farmers who supply such stores as wholesalers, he said. In addition to wholesaling and downtown farmers’ markets, UK officials found a boom in on-farm retailing. Bray Orchards in Bedford, Ky., Huber Farms in Starlight, Ind., and Stream Cliff Farm in Commiskey, Ind. are local examples of this.
Regardless of the scope of a farmers’ market, Woods said operators must address several issues, such as ownership, security, liability insurance, promotion and management.
Woods and other presenters agreed that certain factors must be right for a farmers’ market to succeed. These included location, convenient access to and visibility from major highways, functionally designed buildings or stalls, and the ability to attract a sufficient number of regular buyers and sellers. The proximity of a farmers’ market to the actual producers should also be considered. The Slonakers take advantage of an orchard located just five miles from their Centerville market.
“We found in our study that farmers are willing to travel up to 50 miles to take part in an active market,” Woods said.
Many of these farmers’ markets participate in the U.S. government’s Women, Infants and Children Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, or WIC. Established in 1992, WIC provides mothers with infants up to age 5 with coupons that can be used to purchase fresh produce at participating farmers’ markets. The program’s goal is to provide nutritious food to these families who are at nutritional risk, and to expand consumers’ awareness and use of farmers’ markets.
In 2000, 58 percent of all farmers’ markets in America participated in WIC, food stamps, local or state nutrition programs, according to the USDA. Last year in Indiana alone, WIC fed 126,000 people a month in 92 counties while relying on 58 sponsoring agencies, according to WIC director Cheryl Moles. About $85 million of the state’s $102 million WIC budget was used to buy food. The rest was used for administrative costs and educational programs. Moles said $280,000 in WIC vouchers was redeemed at farmers’ markets.
This summer, the USDA plans to administer a new, grant-funded senior citizens program to be piloted at farmers’ markets in North Vernon, Muncie, Bloomington and Lafayette. It will work similarly by providing food vouchers to those who qualify.
Officials involved in planning the workshop say they are pleased with the turnout and are eager to begin planning a future tri-state conference involving officials from Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.
“You’ve got to start somewhere, and this was a great first step,” said Jerry Hay, a USDA cooperative development specialist based in North Vernon.
“We’re getting great reaction from all corners of the state, and we’re talking with the Indiana Main Street Program about partnering with us,” said Wendy Dan Chesser of the Indiana Rural Development Council. She said her organization wants to serve as a catalyst to help Indiana communities reach their goals of operating a successful farmers’ market.
“Farmers’ markets are critical to the agriculture sector here in Indiana and how we move produce,” said Pearson. He urged community leaders to remain committed to this goal by partnering with local organizations and by developing a business plan.
“Keep your dream and don’t give up,” Pearson told the group. “Don’t be discouraged about what your farmers’ market can be.”

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