Every year at the State Farmers’ Market in Raleigh, N.C., shoppers shell out more than $60 million for locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, plants, Christmas trees and crafts sold from the more than 35,000 spaces rented to growers. It is one of five farmers’ markets owned by the State of North Carolina and operated by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC) hopes to replicate that success on a smaller scale. Next June, MDAC will open the first phase of the State Farmers’ Market at the Mississippi Fairgrounds in Jackson, providing a venue for farmers to sell their products directly to the public.
“The combination of state-of-the-art facilities and a high-traffic location will create the ideal destination for both farmers and customers alike,” said Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture Lester Spell. “Mississippi farmers’ supply of fresh, high quality produce will meet an increasing demand for these products from residents, downtown workers and one million annual fairgrounds visitors. What a great opportunity for farmers and for Jackson.”
This summer, MDAC officials will host organizational meetings within a 60-mile radius of Jackson to encourage participation from producers and to make them aware of available opportunities.
“Word is slowly leaking out, and more people are asking about it, from producers to restaurateurs,” said Patrick Sullivan, bureau director of MDAC`s market development division.
The five-member farmers’ market board is writing the policies to provide the greatest variety possible in a producer-only market, said Sullivan.
Spell, Steven Bailey, Ben Burkett, Louis Guedon and Jack Winstead are board members. Burkett, of Petal, grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and participates in New Orleans farmers’ markets. Guedon, of Natchez, grows a wide variety of peas and beans. Bailey, of Vardaman, is a sweet potato farmer.
“What`s been thrown up in the air for a rental rate for the 32 vendor stalls would be comparable to about $10 a day,” said Sullivan. “That`s very cheap for a farmer.”
The farmers’ market will benefit from weekend activities on the fairgrounds and midweek activity from downtown workers. It will be a selling tool for the Metro Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, and festivals, music and holiday events will be planned around it.
“We’re definitely planning special events on a monthly basis at a minimum, such as a Harvest Festival, with demonstrations and entertainment,” said Sullivan. “We visited several markets around the nation, and in California, where farmers’ markets are very popular, we noticed a group of college students playing bluegrass. I asked the manager, ‘How did you get this band to come out and play?’ She said, `trust me. If you provide a place for these college students to play, they`ll be knocking at your door.'”
At the end of their performance, band members passed around a box to vendors, who filled it with fresh produce, said Sullivan.
“They spent a couple of hours getting to do what they love and they were glad to get free food,” he said. “We want to create the kind of atmosphere where folks wake up on a Saturday morning and head to the farmers’ market to see familiar faces, visit with friends, have a cup of coffee and a pastry, maybe listen to live music, and on their way out the door, stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables for the week.”
Open-air marketplaces often function as business incubators and survival safety nets for small farm operators. At the State Farmers’ Market, growers will collect 100% of the food dollar, said Sullivan.
“They don`t have to go through a middleman,” he said. “It`s not going to a grocery store. It`s picked vine ripe, a fresh product, and they get all the proceeds.”
Jimmy Morton, owner of Chimneyville BBQ Smoke House at 970 High Street in Jackson, said he`s pleased the farmers’ market will be located across the street from his restaurant.
“A couple of years ago, we expanded our menu to include mom-and-pop type vegetable dinners, and we’re thrilled that we`ll have access to fresh vegetables,” he said. “I’ve seen some of the plans, and I know the quality of work and the quality of people Dr. Spell has working on this project, and they have a vision of it being a draw from the central part of the state. We`ll be in the front door of that draw.”
Last year, state lawmakers appropriated $4 million for fairground improvements, including $2 million for the farmers’ market.
“Over the last few years, the direction that the Mississippi Fair Commission has taken has transformed this area, starting with the money the Legislature appropriated for the upgrade of the coliseum,” said Morton. “They have made extremely good decisions. Over time, all the buildings have been upgraded, which has attracted more people to the coliseum and fairgrounds. It`s better for the entire area.”
A farmers’ market restaurant is being considered for the second or third phase of the project, said Morton.
“Even that`s a good thing because we’ve been here for 15 years, and as long as we’re taking care of our business, I’m not concerned about competition,” he said. “One school of thought is that they’re going to get some of my pie. But the more people come to the area, the bigger the piece of pie gets, and there`s plenty of business to go around. I look forward to watching it develop.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.