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Events can help revitalize downtowns

Farmers’ markets are economic development assets

Natchez has one. So does Tupelo. Like many American cities that have successfully launched farmers’ markets, several Delta towns along the Mississippi River are in

the formative stages of starting their own.

“We always suggest farmers’ markets to downtown associations because they automatically increase economic activity,” said Bob Wilson, director of program services

for the Mississippi Main Street Association. “It automatically draws people downtown. On the weekends, that means extra business for restaurants and gas stations.

During the week, it attracts downtown workers. It’s a selling tool for convention and visitors’ bureaus because it offers something different, and festivals, music and

holiday events are often planned around them. Having them located downtown encourages people to walk to farmers’ markets, where they pass stores along the way that

might not otherwise see that kind of traffic.”

Last week, the city of Rosedale — population 2,500 — held a second meeting to discuss a proposed farmers’ market, according to Rosedale Mayor J. Y. Trice.

“We’ll see what happens,” Trice said. “We’re very excited about the possibilities.”

Tunica, Cleveland, Leland, Greenwood and Greenville are in the talking stages, Wilson said.

“City officials are seeing the benefits of farmers’ markets and want to learn more about them,” he said.

Rickey Gray, spokesperson for the State Department of Agriculture and Commerce, said Point Cadet in Biloxi is a good example of a community that has turned the

farmers’ market into “a pretty exciting place.”

“Their farmers’ market has definitely become part of the community, and other cities are following suit,” Gray said.

Billy Carter, manager of the farmers’ market in Jackson, the only one owned by the state, said 88 markets — and nearly 50 minor ones — are listed in Mississippi.

“That number has grown by about 25% over the last couple of years,” Carter said. Deputy Secretary Rich Rominger called farmers’ markets “one of the best kept

secrets in the nation.”

“This is a success story that needs to be told,” Rominger said. “It’s quiet. It’s friendly. It’s a moveable feast — roadsides and vacant city plots, historic old town-meeting

halls and abandoned warehouses — even urban parking lots. And the numbers are phenomenal.”

In 1980, less than 100 farmers’ markets existed in the U.S. Six years ago, the number swelled to 1,700. According to the 2000 National Farmers Market Directory, there

are 2,863 farmers’ markets operating in the U.S., representing a 63% increase since 1994, Rominger said.

“This growth demonstrates American agriculture’s ability to adapt and to innovate, especially through marketing,” he said. “But there’s lots more to the whole story of

farmers’ markets. A farmers’ market is a lifeline of income for family farmers. With more than one million Americans visiting farmers’ markets every week, these

markets and other direct marketing activities are a $1 billion-a-year business, and growing. This is important to us at USDA, where Secretary (Dan) Glickman has made

the economics and problems of small farming a top priority.”

Who benefits most? Probably small farm operators, which account for 94% of all farms, and are defined as farmers with less than $250,000 in annual receipts who work

and manage their own operations. For them, open-air marketplaces function as business incubators and survival safety nets.

“They lower the consumers’ cost of obtaining goods and services because they are an inexpensive way for people to market their wares in a friendly but competitive

business environment,” said Clifton Peters, USDA liaison officer at Alcorn State University in Lorman. “In some areas, they are the only source of fresh produce and

discount shopping. For vendors, they are a low cost way to start an enterprise, exchange information, build a reputation for trust and earn income.”

Alcorn State University teamed up with Natchez city officials to open the farmers’ market in a former grocery store at 613 Main Street in downtown Natchez last

October. Financed with a rural enterprise grant, and supplemented by funds from ASU and Natchez, the farmers’ market has already been deemed a success.

“We thought it would take two years to approach capacity — 40 vendor spaces — but we only have three or four slots available,” Peters said. “We knew Natchez had a

large number of tourists and we thought a farmers’ market would be a good way for small farmers and craftsmen to generate income. It’s part of our mission at Alcorn to

help the small farmer and business community. Everyone has been pleased.”

Jim High, assistant manager to the Main Street Association in Tupelo, which manages the farmers’ market, said nearly 50 vendors signed up since the program was

initiated in May. During the summer season, the marketplace operated on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

“On the biggest day, we had 18 vendors and more than 400 customers,” High said. “It was also the same day we had a live radio remote in conjunction with the Elvis

Presley festival. Typically, we average five or six vendors per day.”

The farmers’ market was established primarily with city funds and business donations. A private company moved a surplus city shed from one city location to a more

visible one downtown. Another private company donated cranes to lift it in place. Pepsi Cola donated a sign. The city paid for new poles to be installed, and spent $2,900

to have its rusted roof spray-painted, High said.

For $5 a day, vendors rent space for the farmer’s market, High said.

“On really good days, farmers would drive up with trucks overloaded with produce,” High said. “I’d see a guy with a truck piled high with peas and I’d think, ‘Lord, he’ll

never sell all of those,’ but within two hours, they’d be gone. The same with corn. One guy sold 95 watermelons in a day.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lynne@thewritingdesk.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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