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Fresh food

Mississippi’s farmers markets play role in community development

 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Dita McCarthy, a veteran vegetable-grower, was urged by friends to carry her produce to a farmers market on the Coast. She was hoping to just make a little extra money.

Instead, it turned into a career-changer.

“I was overwhelmed by the response,” McCarthy said.

The experience led McCarthy to go into farmers market management. Through this, she met Diane Claughton, a fellow Coast resident, chef and long-time farmers market vendor.

The two women joined forces and established the non-profit Real Food Gulf Coast in Long Beach. Today, Real Food Gulf Coast operates three farmers markets on the Coast — in Ocean Springs, Long Beach and Bay St. Louis.

“It has far exceeded all of my expectations,” McCarthy said.

All three of Real Food Gulf Coast’s markets are located in the heart of the communities’ downtown. This is the norm for these markets. Indeed, many of Mississippi’s markets are managed by local Main Street programs or chambers of commerce. The Green Market at Corinth is funded by Corinth Area Tourism Promotion Council.

“Having the farmers market downtown gives us one more activity for visitors and residents,” said Debbie Brangenberg, director of the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association, which manages the Downtown Tupelo’s Farmers Market, now in its 10th year. “You often see people come downtown to shop, and stop off at the market to eat. A lot of elders gather there, and there is often a wild race at six in the morning as people want to see what’s new at the market. And, we have recently expanded, offering activities for children. So, it is just a great community asset.”

Sherri Bevis said the new Bay St. Louis Main Street Market is playing a key role in the area’s continuing Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. Director of the Bay-Waveland Main Street Association, Bevis said the community tested the farmers market concept back in December, and was pleasantly surprised by the heavy traffic and interest it generated. With that, organizers landed the county-owned property located at Second and Main. (The community lost its county-run farmers market to Katrina, and it has yet to reopen.)

“It’s been wonderful,” Bevis said. “Our merchants love it. It’s a produce-only market — no arts and crafts are sold — so there’s no competition. It’s a perfect fit.”

Farmers markets are finding good fits around the state and nation even during the recession. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a 13 percent growth in the number of farmers markets in the U.S. in 2009 compared to 2008. The latest figure showed more than 5,200 markets nationwide.

That trend has also been seen in Mississippi. Currently, the state is home to more than 50 farmers markets, according to figures from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. And, the department expects those numbers to grow. A market management workshop held earlier this month in Raymond drew more than 30 participants representing approximately 20 different markets. And, Paige Manning, communications and policy advisor at the MDAC, said some of the attendees were prospective farmer’s market organizers, there to see what it would take to get new a market up and running.

Recent additions to the MDAC’s certification program have helped boost interest. Every year, the MDAC certifies farmer’s markets to ensure that they are indeed offering locally-produced products. The program is voluntary and not regulatory. Rather, it gives markets promotional ammunition, telling potential customers that they are more than just roadside produce stands.

For those who earn certification, the MDAC has some new perks. One is an increase in state reimbursement for marketing. This year, certified markets will be offered $300 for marketing efforts, $50 more than last year.

Perhaps more important is the new sales tax exemption. In the past, only produce was sales tax-exempt. Value-added products were not. This meant that a producer could sell, say, grapes sales tax-free, but if that producer made jams or jellies from the grapes, those products were taxed. It was a disincentive. Now, if the value-added product is made from locally-grown fruits and vegetables, no sales tax is required.

Thus, the MDAC is expecting an increase in markets seeking certification. Andy Prosser, bureau director, is forecasting 30 markets certified this year, a 50 percent increase over 2009.

However, the attraction goes beyond promotional funding and sales tax waivers. Farmers markets appeal to the new, health-conscious public, who wants to know where and how their food is raised.

The markets often offer more than just vendors, too, and that drives interest. Live music, book-signings, cooking demonstrations and other activities are a staple of most all of Mississippi’s markets.

“Even in a county as small as Hancock County, people often don’t know what we have to offer,” Bevis said. “It helps our farmers, our merchants and is a catalyst for community development.”

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