Arkansas Farmers’ Market Association pushing for more vendors, paid managers
By Ryan McGeeney
U of A System Division of Agriculture
Feb. 19, 2016
- Farmers’ markets more than doubled over the past eight years
- Association focused on bridging gap between older farmers and younger marketers
- AFMA recommends markets adopt paid positions for managers
LITTLE ROCK — As farmers’ markets continue to grow in popularity throughout Arkansas, members of the Arkansas Farms’ Market Association want to make sure those markets are firmly rooted in their communities, members of the association said during their annual meeting this month.
Trudy Redus, former association president, said the organization wants to make sure fledgling markets in more rural areas of Arkansas are given the tools to thrive.
“We’ve got a lot of new farmers’ markets that are coming up in the state,” Redus said. “What AMFA has been trying to do is provide resources and put them in touch with other new market managers to help them grow their markets, and to provide information to help them sustain markets. That’s been our greatest challenge, trying to sustain the markets.”
In early 2008, there were about 40 farmers’ markets in Arkansas, Redus said, most of them located in or near the state’s metropolitan areas such as Fayetteville or Little Rock. As of January 2016, Redus said the association was aware of about 90 markets throughout the state.
Redus said the association also hopes to address the existing generational gap between traditional farmers, some of whom are approaching retirement, and younger, urban individuals who are interested in local agriculture but may not have the resources to purchase or lease farmland.
“When you think about farmers’ markets and actually, farmers, that’s a lot of older people, and you don’t have a lot of young people coming into farmers’ markets. They’re not getting into agriculture anymore. As huge as the state of Arkansas is, when you talk about agriculture, we just don’t have a lot of young people getting into the business, unless their parents own a family farm.
Jody Hardin, a market consultant with Arkavore Consulting, said another significant challenge to the success of new farmers’ markets is their tendency to limit the number of vendors permitted to sell at a given venue.
“A lot of these markets are closed to new members after the first year of opening,” Hardin said. “Fayetteville, Hillcrest, Argenta — even new ones are closed off already. And I‘m shocked. I dreamed of an open-market policy; a state-wide farmers’ market that’s open to anyone who’s a farmer.”
Hardin said the situation typically arises because market managers select vendors with an eye to providing a wide variety of produce choices for customers.
“If everybody’s already growing squash, and you’re growing squash, you’re not of value to the market,” Hardin said. “And new, beginning farmers don’t have the skills to come in with a highly-specialized crop that’s a niche within that farmers’ market. You have to grow those general crops to get your experience in the market.
“If you’re smart and come in with shitakes, or a November strawberry or something, that’s a way to get yourself into a market. But typically, that’s not the case. You have a few really sharp entrepreneurs who strike it rich because they have that niche.”
Hardin said he is currently involved in an effort to create “mobile markets,” which will operate out of a school bus-like vehicle and serve as a mobile hub for burgeoning farmers’ markets in areas of the state referred to as “food deserts,” which lack grocery stores or where nutritious food is otherwise unavailable to residents.
“There’s a real crisis right now, and that’s why mobile markets are prime — because farmers need outlets where they can put their product,” Hardin said. “They’re exclusively local, so they know they’re not going to be competing against California produce, so their own produce will be marketed at a fairer trade price.
“We want to use a mobile market to anchor new brick-and-mortar markets in smaller communities that don’t have but two or three farmers in that area,” Hardin said. “We’ll use the mobile market as an anchor to invite other farmers to come and set up shop. Eventually, the mobile market can just not show up, and the local farmers will have cultivated a clientele and established themselves as a worthy place to come shop.”
Bo Bennett, market manager for the Bernice Gardens Farmers’ Market in Little Rock, spoke to association members during the meeting about the benefits of encouraging markets to hire full- or part-time managers in paid positions, rather than rely entirely on volunteers, as a way to stabilize new markets and ensure a continuity of operations.
“There’s a lot of management turnover at farmers’ markets in Arkansas for this very reason,” Bennett said, referring to the reliance on volunteers, even in management positions. “The most stable are those that do have paid positions — Fayetteville, Bernice Gardens, the River market, and so on.
“As markets grow from the hobbyist level to something the size of Bernice, it requires a good 20 hours a week to manage accounts and farmers,” Bennett said. “And as we adopt more complex problems for farmers’ markets, it requires a lot more accounting and bookkeeping support, so that’s going to be something else that needs the position to be stable, so we can handle the books and the accounting.”
For more information about farmers’ markets in your area, contact your local cooperative extension agent or visit www.arkansasfarmersmarketassociation.com.
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Media Contact: Mary Hightower
Dir. of Communication Services
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service