Campaigns to encourage people to buy local and buy fresh are a major trend today across the U.S. as people get more interested in eating a healthy diet and supporting local farmers and hence the local economy.
Horticulturist Dr. David Nagel, Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service, said the popularity of farmers’ markets is increasing in Mississippi.
“New farmers’ markets are being developed in several cities every year,” Nagel said. “Both Starkville and Hattiesburg are in the development stages in 2008. This trend is evident all across the U.S.A.”
Advantages to the general public include being able to purchase fruits and vegetables that have been recently harvested. The buyer is dealing directly with the producer and can find out information about varieties and the method of production, and can get advice on which particular vegetable most closely matches the characteristics they desire.
“Local producers are often willing to grow a few plants of an orange eggplant, a white tomato, an orange-fleshed watermelon or a hot pepper other than cayenne or jalapeño if the buyer can explain their desires,” Nagel said. “A trip to the farmers’ market is also an opportunity to visit with neighbors and take time to find out what is happening in the area.
“Buy local is being urged by not only the agricultural community, but by developers, local governments and energy-conscious advocates to reduce fuel use and eat better. The Women, Infants and Children’s program has vouchers for use only in farmers markets in communities across the country to help introduce fresh fruits and vegetables into children’s diets. Almost every state has a slogan to urge folks to buy home grown, but ‘Make Mine Mississippi’ is probably the most alliterative.”
Small producers have few outlets to sell their produce. Farmers’ markets allow the person with a big back yard to grow and sell a few hundred pounds and make money. Nagel said larger growers get a higher return by direct marketing rather than by selling wholesale.
“Sellers at farmers’ markets do not have to meet packaging, sizing, tonnage and timing requirements that wholesalers demand,” Nagel said. “Some of the sellers at farmers’ markets do it as much for the social aspect of meeting new people and visiting with people interested in vegetables as for a source of income.”
Markets are becoming more buyer-friendly and most producers are actively seeking information from their customers about the things they are looking for. Blueberry sales increased after national attention was brought to their anti-oxidant properties. And, kohlrabi is now sold at several Mississippi markets due to customer demand.
Another trend is towards more consumer demand for organic produce, said Helen Brooks, manager, Natchez Farmers Market.
“Growers can ask a premium price for organic produce, and that is okay with local buyers because they know growing organically is a lot better than traditionally raised crops,” Brooks said. “We are working on getting those farmers certified as organic growers.”
Another trend Brooks has noticed is that the market is seeing more customers because the prices at the farmers’ market are lower than at supermarkets. With the high cost of fuel impacting transportation costs, it is cheaper for people to buy local produce that may have traveled only a few miles, compared to produce shipped across the country or even from outside of the country.
“High fuel costs may be helping the local farmers,” Brooks said. “It is not going to cost them much more fuel than normal because these are local growers and they can keep their prices the same as last year.”
Another factor fueling increases sales at farmers’ markets is food voucher programs through the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. Programs for children and seniors provide vouchers to buy fresh fruits and vegetables purchased at the farmer’s market. Brooks said the vouchers can mean a lot to seniors on fixed incomes.
Sales at the Natchez Farmer’s Market were $2,000 three years ago. Now it is more than $10,000. The market is open Thursday through Saturday running from late April or early May until mid-November. In addition to fruits and vegetables, vendors sell jams and jellies, other canned goods, honey, mushrooms and handmade items such as quilts and jewelry.
“It is very diverse,” Brooks said. “Another unique thing is we have a café inside the farmers’ market. We feed off their customers and they feed off ours. We have healthy cooking demonstrations and things like youth art contests, cookouts and pumpkin carving. We really have a good clientele base that comes in and patronizes the farmers’ market.”
The Mississippi Farmers’ Market in Jackson also continues to grow in popularity.
“From what I can tell, the public is receiving us well. Each year, we are expanding and getting more farmers in as well as more customers,” said Richard Butler, market manager for the Mississippi Farmers’ Market. “We have a great relationship with our farmers, and that carries over into their relationship with customers, the Metro public.”
Two years ago, the market got a new facility that is enclosed. There are roll-up doors for 32 stalls so farmers can back up into buildings, unload and set up stands. People can walk on a concrete pad. There are heaters when it is cold outside and fans for the summer.
“It is a great location being in central downtown Jackson where we are able to pick up a lot of customers we weren’t able to pick up at the other market,” Butler said. “The best thing that works out for the farmers is that we are only dealing with farmers selling here. There are no middlemen. Right now, we are just open Saturdays, but once the season picks up we will also be open Tuesdays and Thursday. That gives farmers a day in between to work on their farms, harvest product and bring it here to sell. We advertise heavily for them. The main purpose of this is to help out the farmer while bringing a quality fresh product to the public.”
Butler said while the market does have a lot of value-added products, the trend is people want fresh produce. But people often visit the markets for more than just healthy food — they like the atmosphere.
“You are talking to people with great attitudes and smiles on their faces,” Butler said. “It is just a very friendly place to be. It is a big privilege to buy local, and that is a becoming a very large trend. People are getting fired up about buying local produce, knowing where their food came from and knowing the guy who grew it. It is a very positive thing with the public. Buying local also gets the 18-wheelers off the road a little bit. Buy fresh, buy local is a popular logo these days. It is also good for the economy. It is fuel to the economy.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.