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Changing Farmers Markets

Little Rock was one of the first cities I went to when I started visiting farmers markets across the country for my book “Local Flavors.” When my husband and I went to check out the farmers market, it was immediately clear that there weren’t any farmers there. Peddlers were the sellers, not growers. A friend who had come along with us became so exasperated with my desire to find some locally grown food that he picked up a bunch of scallions, shook them in my face and said, “Isn’t it enough that some farmer grew these somewhere?

We had that already. It was called a supermarket. And no, it wasn’t enough and that was the whole point. I was looking for specifics. I was looking for the farmer from Arkansas who grew and bunched those scallions and she was nowhere to be seen.

A rapidly changing scene

I just attended the Arkansas Farmers Market Association’s annual meeting, where I gave a talk and, my, how things have changed. True, that peddlers market is still there, but this young association is all about creating certified farmers markets where the farmer is the seller and peddlers aren’t allowed. It started six years ago when three farmers finally became so fed up with being undercut by guys selling produce from the wholesale terminal or from Texas or Oklahoma that they moved across the river and started a real farmers market. There are now about 80 certified markets in the association.

This was progress, and it was exciting to see. Over the weekend of the Arkansas statewide farmers market meeting, there were quite a few surprises. I realize that you could say that I’d simply been out of the farmers market loop, and to an extent, that’s true. But sometimes the advantage of returning to something after some time away is that you see how the world has changed with more clarity than when it just gradually unfolds.

The evening before I was to give my talk, I wandered into the bar of the Capitol Hotel and approached what I was pretty sure was a table of farmers. They never do look quite like anyone else and this group, as it turned out, was the board of the statewide association. They extended their hospitality and I joined them for drinks followed by an extremely excellent meal of local vegetables and grass-finished beef. The dinner, which ended with creamy sweet potato pie, would have been enjoyable under any circumstance, but with everything so well-grown and coming on the heels of a few days of road food plus a tornado, which had blown by less than an hour before, it seemed truly miraculous.

Surprising government support

After dinner we fell into an energetic discussion about the state of farmers markets, how different board members dealt with various situations they encountered as managers and farmers, the introduction of a state bill and the passage of another, then farmers’ talk about seeds and weather. Included at the table and at the meeting the next day was the marketing director of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. This young man works with the association to promote Arkansas farmers markets — supplying them with handsomely printed-paper bags, signage, advertising, advice and pointing them toward money opportunities. What a surprise that here was a state official working to make small-scale farming a success in Arkansas. His was an altogether enviable presence. I thought back to the years when we still had to explain to ag government people why local markets were important and worthy of support, let alone enthusiasm. The Arkansas board was duly very grateful to have someone in the state to work with, and his participation had obviously given everyone a shot in the arm.

The statewide meeting the next two days was held in the Little Rock convention center simultaneously with the Arkansas Garden and Flower Show, which helped to support the farmers by sharing the date, space, signage and a gala dinner that again featured Arkansas foods grown by a few of the farmers present. The chicken wasn’t by Tyson, and some women at my table, who were clearly not in the farming community, couldn’t get over how delicious it was. They had never had real farm chicken before and they must have mentioned its goodness at least 20 times during dinner. I listened to the youthful chicken farmer on my left and the produce farmer on my right as they talked about their visions. More surprises here — the optimistic ambition, the youthfulness of the farmers, that their visions were big and being fulfilled, plus the support offered by the garden and flower show.

The surprises continued. One woman gave a slideshow that portrayed the building of a handsome structure for her market. It included a kitchen area for processing and restrooms, both very important for markets. She had received a grant to build the structure, but it wasn’t enough. So she had found support from her mayor and volunteers in her community. Together they built a market hall for less than $30,000. This was a good story, but what made it more amazing was that she hadn’t started with a market in place; she had started the market and building simultaneously. Again I couldn’t help but think we in Santa Fe, with a market more than 40 years old, finally got a permanent building only three years ago — and that after years of fundraising.

As the day unfolded I kept hearing about how one market manager after another had received grants to support market-related activities, how they had enlisted help and received it from their local city councils and mayors, how they collaborated with other groups in their towns, like schools. One manager-farmer had even run for office because she had heard it was good to know someone on the council.

Conferences always supply information, but that’s different from having real governmental support that small farmers can count on. The nationwide enthusiasm for knowing our farmer and our food has made a difference. It’s much easier to find support for your market than it used to be, despite this era of budget cuts. You don’t have to explain to your town hall what farmers markets are and what they can bring to a community. Certainly every mayor and councilperson has been to more than one farmers market. After all, they have become travel destinations.

I looked at pictures of the markets in Arkansas, and none seemed especially impressive, large or wealthy, as urban markets tend to be. Mostly they were small and a bit funky in a country sort of way, but I felt confident they would grow. Markets always start small, after all, and what they need to grow are volunteers and a desire on the part of shoppers for there to be a market. Apparently both were in good supply. What took me aback was the sense that help was available to create and grow these markets — the grants people were getting, the money for structures, the information given at the conference and especially the guidance and support from state and local officials.

A growing demand for farmers markets

When I first managed our farmers market 20 years ago, managers were volunteers and so were a lot of the people who helped make their markets grow. This was true of almost every market I visited before 2002, when “Local Flavors” came out. Today, many market managers and their staffs get paid, especially in older markets, as well they should. Running a market business is a big job, particularly when the market is a large one. The next time I attend such a meeting there probably will be a seminar on salaries for managers and health care options for farmers and market staff alike. In fact, I just got an email from the Farmers Market Coalition, a national support group for farmers markets. The subject? Health insurance for market managers, staff and farmers.

Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author many books on food and cooking, including “The Greens Cookbook” and “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America’s Farmers Markets.” Her latest book is Seasonal Fruit Desserts from Orchard, Farm and Market.”

Photo: Farmers market stall. Credit: / Dan Moore

Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author of many books on food and cooking, including "The Greens Cookbook" and "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers Markets." Her latest book, "Vegetable Literacy," is a 2014 James Beard Award winner.