Jackson — After much anticipation, several years of planning and more than a year under construction, the new Mississippi Farmers’ Market has opened its doors in the Capital City on High Street. While the old Farmers’ Market served the state well for 60 years, the new facility not only offers more space and extra amenities, it is built around today’s concept of the role of these facilities in local communities.
“The concept is not new. Approximately 3,000 farmers’ markets have been built in the U.S. over the past 15 years,” said Patrick Sullivan, director of marketing at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. “If you look at just about any successful city in the U.S., you will find a successful farmers’ market.”
New day, new way
Built in the 1940s, the old Farmers’ Market had been in decline for some years. But there were other aspects of the old facility that were even more problematic. For example, the old market was grower friendly, but was not designed with the buying public in mind. It wasn’t customer friendly nor lent itself to bustling retail trade. And, the old market housed operations that were selling produce grown out of state, contrary to the market’s concept.
The Mississippi Farmers’ Market, which saw planning begin in 2002, remedies these problems. It was designed around other similar, regional markets studied by state officials, offering a venue where local farmers can market their products directly to consumers in a retail environment, while consumers are provided fresh, high-quality food, which grows more popular as consumers’ concern about what they eat and where it comes from increases.
The Jackson-based architectural firm Cooke, Douglass, Farr, Lemons, Ltd., executed the design work on the Mississippi Farmers’ Market. The project’s general contractor was Coleman Hammons Construction Company of Brandon.
The 18,000-square-foot facility offers more than aesthetically pleasing lines. The new market can accommodate up to 32 stalls, and features roll-up doors, allowing growers to pull right up to their stall and unload their product. The complex also houses two rental facilities, which will be opened to a foodservice business such as a meat market or bakery and a restaurant.
Sullivan said the rental space reflects that today’s farmer’s markets are more than just a place to buy fresh fruit and vegetables and other fresh-grown products.
“Successful farmer’s markets are destinations,” he said. “They offer additional activities, such as food, music, children’s activities. They are a community-gathering place.
“Just last week, we went down to Baton Rouge (La.) to see their market. It was amazing. Baton Rouge is similar in size and demographics to Jackson, and the atmosphere in Baton Rouge was just terrific. The stalls were filled with farmers, and there were additional activities. That’s what we want here in Jackson — a place where people can come and hang out and have a good time. A place not only for buying fresh produce, but a place to watch cooking demonstrations, listen to live music, enjoy arts and crafts.”
The Mississippi Farmers’ Market, which employs three workers, opened for the first time February 25. (An official grand opening is slated for June 3.) According to Sullivan, it will be open a minimum of every Saturday from now on, but the goal is to have the market open six days per week. Sullivan said extra opening days would be added gradually, with plans to be open perhaps three days weekly later this year as growers harvest their products.
Growing the number of vendors and consumers is now the focus of market officials. Sullivan said state officials spent a lot of time in 2004 talking to growers to find out what they wanted in the new market. He said that strategy is now being utilized with consumers.
“This is a public facility,” he said. “So, we’re seeking the public’s opinion and feedback. We want to know what it is they want to see at the new market. That is the only way it is going to work.
“We’re going to get the product. What we have to get is the consumers. We have to get the word out there that the Mississippi Farmers’ Market offers high-quality, fresh products and a lot more.”
Sullivan said initial marketing efforts will target consumers in the immediate area, then branch out from there to Madison County, Rankin County and beyond. “I think two years from now, the Farmers’ Market will become a destination for Mississippians,” Sullivan said.
Ric Shafer, owner of Dolly Farms in Vicksburg, shares Sullivan’s optimism and enthusiasm. Shafer has been a fixture at the nearby Belhaven Market since it opened five years ago and vended at the temporary farmers’ market last year. He has seen other markets, as well, and said the new facility ranks at the top.
“It’s as fine of a facility as you will find anywhere in the U.S.,” Shafer said. “It’s a great market, and it is going to work.”
Shafer, as with many growers, was affected by last year’s tropical weather, mainly from Hurricane Rita. A creek bordering Dolly Farms, which Shafer bought 20 years ago and raises both flowers and vegetables, flooded the farm’s crop, destroying half of the winter squash crop and totally wiping out the lettuce and spinach.
Still, Shafer and Dolly Farms has recovered, and Shafer is confident other growers will, as well. He foresees a mix of products and activities in the market’s future that should put it on consumers’ maps. Some of that mix will be from Dolly Farms. He is planning on introducing such produce as lettuce with edible flowers, and also plans to offer a bouquet bar where customers can build their own bouquets and are charged by the stem.
“Folks want a one-stop shop,” Shafer said. “They don’t want to buy their peas or tomatoes at one place and their bananas at another. I have pushed to let the crafters in. When the meat market and restaurant are added, that will just be a plus. I’m excited about the future.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at email@example.com.