February 24, 2011 by wcobserver
By Steve Winkler
There are two Washington Counties. Most often we hear about the fast growing metropolitan area that’s home to giant corporations, retail Meccas and a world class university. That Washington County occupies about half the land area, the other Washington County is rural. The nature of that rural landscape spans the whole spectrum of country living from sprawling stately “gentleman farm” estates with pedigreed livestock roaming inside white fences to some of the most rugged, remote, and inhospitable agricultural land in the region. Those rugged landscapes are populated by two types of people; the ones that have deep family roots and the ones that have come here from somewhere else. The small land holders with ten and twenty acres regardless of their origins share a vision about their relation to the land – can they make a living on it?
Small farming enterprises have historically abounded in the Ozarks. The idea of self sufficiency and subsistence farming are compatible with much of the terrain and seem to suit the independent minded individuals that for some reason have chosen to live here. But geographic isolation and bad roads made it difficult to get produce to market. Things began to change after the Depression and WWII with the coming of better roads connecting the rural communities to growing urban centers
One of the oldest farm-direct-marketing strategies used by these small farmers was the roadside stand. City dwellers who passed through the countryside could buy fresh-picked, in season farm produce at family operated sheds or even take advantage of the so called, “U-Pick” or PYO (Pick Your Own) farms.
But nothing can beat the community spirit and buzzing excitement of bringing the farmer’s produce and the city consumer together in an open air market on Saturday morning. It has proven to be an efficient and popular means for small farmers to sell their products. Farmers like the opportunity for increased income and civic leaders see the markets as a form of economic development.
The farmers’ market concept caught on and in the United States the number of markets grew from 1,755 in 1994 to approximately 6,200 in 2010. Over 3 million consumers shop and more than 60,000 farmers sell at these markets annually. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that these markets generate an estimated $1.3 billion in consumer spending each year.
“It’s a hot issue right now,” said Ron Ramey, an economist with the U of A division of agriculture. Consumer demand for healthy food and interest in promoting the local economy has given the farmers’ markets “tremendous momentum.” Growth nationwide has been phenomenal. “Farmers’ markets have grown 100% in the last 5 years,” said Ramey.
This growth can be attributed to several factors according to Ramey. In the 1990s America’s attitude toward food on the table shifted from convenience and price to a taste for chemical free freshness; the “flavor profile.” Not only have consumers become much more sophisticated about the food they eat they are engaging in what has been called the “experiential economy.”
Consumers are beginning to consider factors other than price when making shopping decisions. Research is showing evidence that an increasing number of people are willing to pay a higher price for what they see as a positive experience said Ramey. If they can’t actually be “down on the farm” at least they can visit with the farmer that grew the food. This idea is promoted by a USDA publicity slogan, “Know Your Farmer-Know Your Food.”
At a farmers’ market the grower can share his/her personal story with the buyer, describing the farm, its methods or generations of families which serves to enhance consumer trust (real or perceived). According to the “experience economy” theory, what is generally considered a simple business transaction involving someone buying food can become a memorable event for the customer, and that memory itself can become the product. Taken further the experience can be regarded as “transformative” which adds to its value even more. The customer at the farmers’ market engages in an up close and personal positive social interaction with the food vender which may evolve into the buyer eating more nutritiously and feeling better.
So, What is a Farmers’ Market – Who Decides?
There is no standard definition of exactly what a farmers’ market is. “So there is no way to get an accurate assessment,” said Ramey adding that there are an estimated 70-75 in the state. A bill currently in the Arkansas Legislature would establish a standard definition and require certification and registration of market managers.
Some markets are relaxed in their organizational structure and vendor criteria being no more than a rural cross roads or parking lot where vendors gather at certain times. The emphasis is generally on locally-grown/produced food and crafts but oversight of quality, organic labeling, origin, may be less defined in some markets. The Winslow Farmers Market for example of a non structured market.
Most farmers’ markets in Washington County, however, are carefully managed, with strict rules about types of products, limits on non food items and growing location. Perspective vendors must apply for membership and selection is based on several criteria such as growing methods, pricing and quality. The markets in Fayetteville, Springdale and West Fork all have managers and regulations governing their operation.
There is a bill in the Arkansas Legislature which would legally define farmers’ markets and require certification. Suporters of such legislation point to the need for the public to know that vendors at farmers markets are actually local people and not wholesalers who bring in produce from distant locations. Opponents are usually concerned that some level of government will know their business which might make it difficult for them to avoid paying taxes or accountable as other business enterprises are.
To get a first-hand account of the world of farmers’ markets the Observer went to Elm Springs and visited with Fay Horn under the warm afternoon sun surrounded by piles of melting snow. Looking to be about “retirement age” he is anything but retiring. Along with his son, daughter-in-law, and the grand kids he operates Horn Family Farm. The operation is diversified, to say the least. They farm about 15 acres growing vegetables, three varieties of berries, peaches and apples, in addition to producing pasture raised goat and pork. The extensive greenhouse operation (we counted three large structures) are solar heated and provide most of his own bedding and vegetable plants. He’s also proud of his sweet potato slips.
He doesn’t stop with growing the food but also has a Health Department approved food processing kitchen where the family makes pickles, jams and jellies. His meat products are processed at a USDA approved facility in Van Buren.
Fay Horn knows production and marketing of small farm products inside and out. And he shares that knowledge by serving for the last three years as vice president of the Arkansas Farmers’ Market Association (AFMA). This state wide group acts as an umbrella organization that helps local markets in their effort to showcase growers’ products and promote nutrition education and healthy eating habits thoughout the state.
“We need customers,” Horn insists. Getting vendors is not the problem he says. “Probably 75% of the people don’t know there is a farmers’ market anywhere around.” Farmers need to be able to make money or they can’t stay on the farm. “Land is expensive,” he says as he points to the distant hills, “those are million dollar homes.”
Horn supports legislation to require certification for farmers’ markets and would like to see the health departments sort out jurisdictional inconsistencies regarding food processing. He suggests the various County Health Departments could do a better job coordinating with the state and federal agencies. “You can’t get two of ‘em to tell you the same thing,” he observed.
He had some advice for the advertising and promotion committees as well. “It’s their job to get the customer there one time… it’s the vendors job to keep ‘em coming back.”
Want to know more?
Attend the upcoming AFMA (Arkansas Farmers Market Associations} Conference. AFMA has partnered with Certified Arkansas Farmers’ and the Arkansas Flower and Garden Show for a three-day educational conference February 25- 27, 2011 in Little Rock. The Conference will be the state’s premier gathering of small farmers, agricultural students, farmers’ market managers and others involved in the small farm industry.
LocalHarvest.org Use this website to find farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
PickYourOwn.org -This website provides local listings of pick your own (also called U-pick or PYO) farms in the United States
ArkansasGrown.org. This website was developed by the Arkansas Agriculture Department (AAD) to help potential buyers locate Arkansas producers. Any resident of Arkansas who produces an agricultural product in our state may, at no charge, list their marketing information with AAD.
Northwest Arkansas Farmers’ Market Alliance provides assistance to farmers’ markets in Northwest Arkansas.