Farmers Markets drive small-farm economies

n They also enhance
a community’s image
and serve its citizens.

BY EMILY LE COZ

BUSINESS JOURNAL

TUPELO – If it weren’t for farmers markets, small growers like Benton Brewer and Dorris Bucci wouldn’t have a venue for their seasonal harvests.

Unlike large-scale farmers that contract with distributors to move their product, hobby farmers rely on the growing popularity of local fresh-foods markets to sell their fruits and vegetables and make a profit.

Bucci, who grows peas, corn, beans and blueberries on her Greenwood Springs farm, makes about $650 a week selling at the Tupelo Farmers Market. It’s her only income.

Others, like Oxford farmer Linda Boyd, make enough money to sink back into operations without depending on the cash for non-farm expenses. Boyd raises blueberries, cucumber, squash, spinach, carrots, flowers and other goods and sells about 80 percent of it at the Mid-Town Farmers Market in Oxford. The rest she sells to a restaurant in town.

For Boyd, the market is a chance to build her customer base while promoting healthy, organically grown food. For market organizers, it’s a chance to boost the community’s image.

Former Tupelo Mayor Larry Otis and West Tennessee Farmers Market manager Felix Fly have both said that markets in their communities have helped revitalize downtown.

Areas that once drew few if any citizens now bustle with activity on farmers market days. In Jackson, Tenn., more than 3,000 customers frequent the venue on a busy day and earn vendors some $1 million in sales each year.

Jim High, vice president of the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association, which runs the city’s market, didn’t know how much his vendors earned annually. But he estimated good sales.

The city, in turn, benefits: Tupelo earned $7,900 in 2004 from renting booths at the market while spending about $3,000 for maintaining the property, providing a portable toilet and distributing free plastic bags to vendors.

Last year it got $9,800 from booth rentals and spent $3,950 on maintenance, bags and the toilet service.

They’re everywhere

Markets provide a win-win opportunity for everybody, High said. Farmers get to sell produce, consumers get fresh, locally-grown food, and communities get an image boost.

Perhaps that’s why the number of these mostly outdoor venues have more than doubled in the past decade. In 1994, America counted 1,755 farmers markets scattered from coast to coast. In 2004, that number jumped to 3,706, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That trend hasn’t bypassed Northeast Mississippi, where farmers markets attract healthy crowds during their open seasons, usually between May and November. Statewide, nearly two dozen such markets co-exist.

“Our mission is to give an outlet for the producers,” said Buddy Smith, organizer of the Prentiss County Farmers Market in Booneville, which operates Wednesday and Friday from June to October.

“We encourage the small people who have gardens with extra produce and they’d like to come by and sell it. It doesn’t have to be a truck farmer or a big person to do this. We just want to provide a facility for the producers and citizens of Prentiss County a place to buy their fresh produce.”

Booneville opened its market four years ago; Tupelo started its venue seven years ago. But Corinth’s market “has been here at least 30 to 40 years,” said Patrick Poindexter, Alcorn County Extension Service director.

“In the peak of the season, you can’t find a parking spot,” he said. “You’re probably looking at 15 to 20 vendors set up selling out of the back of vehicles or trailers, and there will be anywhere from 100 or so people who come through on given Saturday.”

Contact Emily Le Coz at 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com