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August 9, 2012
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Farmers Markets: Growing the Local Food Economy

Markets will generate an estimated $11 million in sales to farmers

By Kara Keeton

More and more Kentuckians are buying fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and other farm items direct from the producer at 147 farmers’ markets in 100 counties, such as this one in downtown Lexington.

Farmers markets are one of the state’s green shoots of commerce. The 147 markets in 100 Kentucky counties this year will generate an estimated $11 million in sales to farmers who reinject it into their local economies.

“In 2011 markets reported $10.5 million in gross sales, but I’m sure this number would be very close to, if not over, $11 million,” said Sharon Spencer, farmers market director with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

Like many other aspects of the state’s agriculture economy, Kentucky farmers markets have seen steady growth over the last few years. In 2009, markets reported sales of $5.6 million, and then sales increased to almost $8 million in 2010.

“The weather conditions this summer are taking a toll on our farmers at the market. It has not been a good year for beans and corn, but the diversity of products at the market is what has made the difference for sales,” said Jeff Dabbelt, Lexington Farmers Market executive director. “We have great farmers producing niche products like artisanal cheeses, wines, pasture eggs and organic meats along with a great selection of seasonal products that bring customers out to the market each week.”

Spencer explained that the diversification at the farmers markets has happened because farmers have had to diversify to stay on the farm. As farmers started losing tobacco quotas 10 years ago and began looking for ways to replace tobacco income, many turned to products they could direct market to the consumer.

“This necessity to change, along with the trend in the local food movement, has led to the growth and diversification in farmers markets across the state,” Spencer said.

And markets are growing and becoming permanent parts of their communities thanks in big part to assistance from the Kentucky Agriculture Development Fund. Since 2006, the number of permanent market structures has nearly doubled from 34 to 62.

“I see the Kentucky Agricultural Development Fund investments made in our farmers’ markets as not just investments for our farmers today, but also long-term investments for agriculture,” said Roger Thomas, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy. “Farmers markets are much more than just a venue for farmers to sell products; they are also one of the best consumer education tools we have in agriculture.”

They tell customers how products are raised and made, introduce them to and share recipes for new products, and explain preservation methods for seasonal items.

“It isn’t just about selling products; the farmers share with them the stories from the farm and the customers become friends,” said Stephen Yates, St. Matthew’s farmers’ market manager. “Price of the products isn’t the determining factor in these relationships. The customers like knowing the farmer and how their food is produced. They don’t get that when they buy tomatoes or salsa off the shelf at the grocery store.”

The local food movement and farm diversification is leading some markets to extend their seasons. Kentucky now has three year-round markets where customers can buy fresh meats, eggs, processed foods and produce through the winter months.

“We had our best winter market this past this past year,” Dabbelt said. “We had more members participate and according to members many saw sales greater than in years before. I had one producer tell me that he sold $250 in product one winter Saturday before 10 a.m. While sales like that are not normal for the winter market, we hope that they are one day.”

Summer means typical wide variety at markets. There are interesting products year round, though, for consumers willing to try new items: Greens, winter squash, sweet potatoes, meats, eggs, breads and other value added-products usually mean strong selection in the cold months, too.

“Having a good mix of vendors, both farmers and processors, have helped the Lexington Farmers Market to grow year-round,” said Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm, one of many family farming operations that sell there all year.

“We are seeing a lot of new faces, a younger crowd at the market, who concerned about the food they eat and how it gets from the farm to the plate. I think this growth is not only good for our market, but I think it is a positive sign for the local food economy beyond the market.”

Finding markets

For a complete list of Kentucky’s farmers markets, locations and hours of operation, click here.

Kara Keeton is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at editorial@lanereport.com.

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