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Number of specialty crop farms continues to grow

Produce_STEGALL_rgbACROSS MISSISSIPPI — As demand increases for locally grown produce, farmers markets have become a way to take fresh fruits and vegetables directly to customers.

“This segment of agriculture is growing, and I think we are only going to see the need for small-scale producers increase in the coming years,” said Rick Snyder, vegetable specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service and researcher with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station in Crystal Springs.

From 2006 to 2014, the number of small farms in Mississippi that grow specialty crops increased from about 20 to about 85, according to Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce statistics.

Many of these specialty crops are sold at local farmers markets, which have exponential benefits for growers, consumers and communities, including more nutritious food options, low-cost sales channels, educational opportunities for the public and improved community relationships.

Diane Claughton, director and founder of the South Mississippi Farmers Market Association, said farmers markets provide a ready-made customer base with minimal start-up costs, making them ideal retail outlets for small-scale producers.

“Even in the dog days of August, we’ve done very well,” said Claughton, who manages the association’s three markets in Ocean Springs, Gulfport and Long Beach. “We have an extremely loyal following.

“I’ve closed the market only once — during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I figured the tents wouldn’t make it through 70-mile-per-hour winds. But the dairy and goat meat vendors chose to offer their items for sale that day. When they decided it was time to go, they had people chasing them down the street to buy their products,” Claughton said.

This kind of loyalty is common in farmers markets because of the unique personal relationships vendors and consumers build.

Rebecca Bates, Extension Lincoln County coordinator and founder of the Brookhaven Farmers Market, said community-based farmers markets become social gathering places and take on the personality and flavor of the community.

“Six years ago, Brookhaven didn’t have anything else like this, where people could gather for a few hours and visit with each other,” Bates said. “It’s a good way to help the farmers and the consumers in our community.”

David Yowell, manager of the Copiah County Farmers Market in Hazelhurst, said farmers markets also offer a way to educate the public about the food they eat.

“A lot of people don’t understand why they can get certain fruits and vegetables in the store and not at our market,” Yowell said. “Our growers really try to help people understand seasonality and the differences in freshness. In a farmers market setting, growers and consumers build trust as they get to know one another, and that allows for these kinds of opportunities.”

Hazlehurst market members also focus on educating young people. They take every opportunity to teach children about agriculture at the farmers market. One of their goals is to establish a youth garden.

“We need more young people interested in gardening and food preservation,” said Gerri Ellis, who sells blueberries, muscadines, blackberries, plums, jams and jellies with her husband Paul at the Hazlehurst market.

The average age of Mississippi farmers is 60, Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce statistics show. Dick Hoy said that number concerns him. Hoy is the general manager of Choctaw Fresh Produce, a project aimed at educating the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians about the link between nutrition and health.

Hoy also manages 15 high tunnels as part of the Choctaw’s vocational rehabilitation program. Those high tunnels provide fruits and vegetables to tribe members, the resort, schools and restaurants.

He is expanding his efforts to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to a population in which 45 percent of members are diabetic.

The mobile markets will serve seven communities in the area, most of which are food deserts.

“People don’t have access to grocery stores, and they end up eating a lot of junk food from the nearby convenience stores, so I hope we can make an impact with our mobile markets,” he said.

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