Monday, June 14, 2010

Farmers' Markets Growing Despite Recession

Steady growth of local farmers markets show the increasing importance of local food to today’s consumers.

The changing relationship between people and their food has let farmers markets in Missouri and across the U.S. buck the recessionary trends of the past several years.

“More farmers have started marketing directly to their communities, and that means the money from those sales stays in their communities,” said Mary Hendrickson, a University of Missouri Extension community food systems expert. “We’ve seen direct-to-consumer sales from farmers increase nearly 70 percent in 10 years after being adjusted for inflation.”

The number of Missouri farmers markets has doubled in the past decade, from about 70 in 1999 to more than 140 in 2009.

That growth is plainly evident in cities like Columbia, which has seen its farmers markets expand to several locations, including a monthly farmers market on the MU campus.

Julie Tobias, registered dietitian and wellness coordinator for the MU Wellness Resource Center, worked to expand the campus market to its current form.

“A lot of times we do grab for packaged, prepared foods, but they often are higher in fat, sugar and lower in nutrients,” Tobias said. “Having a regular presence on campus can demonstrate that getting locally grown, fresh foods in your diet on a regular basis can lead to better lifelong health.”

Local vendors sell products ranging from baked goods and farm-raised beef to honey and garden plants.

Jim Benner is one of those vendors. Running Jimbo’s Gard-N-Goodies, the New Franklin resident travels to Columbia each week to sell greenhouse-raised plants and produce. The sales supplement income from a cabinet-making business that has lagged with recent economic hardships.

“Since the economy has really just gone to dirt, this is a good backup and way to make ends meet,” Benner said. “To see people looking at and buying our plants gives me a lot of pride in what we’ve done. To see people this interested in what you do makes me want to grow my business more.”

Thanks to robust interest, Benner has expanded his greenhouse operation to more than 6,000 plants and for the first time plans to sell for the entire season.

His customers are people like Margaret Wilson, an MU senior. She likes to buy food such as locally baked bread and locally grown vegetables at the market because she knows what goes into it and who she’s supporting with her money.

“Buying my food here makes me feel healthier and I think it would be better for everyone if we all started buying locally grown foods,” Wilson said.

Hendrickson said a focus on health is a key reason for increased interest, but not the only one.

“People are more aware of what they’re eating and want fruits and vegetables – especially ones that taste good – and the best place to buy that is directly from someone you know,” she said. “But it’s also connecting people’s food with a sense of place and a friendly face. They want to be able to ask how a farmer grew something, whether they used organic methods, what they use for bug control, and farmers get to educate eaters on what it really means to be a farmer here in Missouri.”

Another advantage to buying from local farmers is that the farmers will in turn spend their revenue where it will stimulate other local businesses, Hendrickson said. “They are sustainable businesses that don’t move with whatever tax credits are out there to draw in business, and that’s why it can be a really strong economic development tool.”

Click here to find a farmers market in your area.

Click here to view the related video to this story.

(written by Roger Meissen, MU Senior Information Specialist)

University of Missouri Cooperative Media Group

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