Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak recently signed a proclamation declaring Aug. 7-13, 2016 as the 17th annual “National Farmers Market Week.” To celebrate the occasion, Arkansas consumers can head to their local farmers market, buy fresh produce and meet their local farmers, Dr. Henry English, head of the Small Farm Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said. Small producers, on the other hand, might consider participating in a community farmers market, as the trend grows increasingly popular throughout the state.
“Farmers markets strengthen communities as people come together to exchange fresh, healthy food,” Dr. English said. “A marketplace setting provides a unique opportunity for local consumers to meet the farmers who grow the food they eat, while producers can learn more about local business markets and customer preferences.”
The prevalence of farmers markets has increased in Arkansas, as a “buy local, buy fresh” mentality has correlated with consumers becoming more health conscious, he said. Consumers often want to avoid buying food that may have been biologically contaminated or that was grown using non-organic pesticides, fertilizers and growth hormones.
“Often many feel that produce grown locally and that was not shipped over thousands of miles simply tastes better,” Dr. English said. “Government investment in local food business through farm-to-school programs, EBT/SNAP programs and specialty block grant opportunities, has enabled consumers to see buying produce locally as a constant, dependable option.”
Dr. English said participation in a local farmers market a few times a week throughout a growing season can generate extra income via constant cash flow for a producer. Some producers grow produce year round to sell to community-supported agriculture (CSA) networks, farm-to-school programs, restaurants and even hotels.
“Farmers markets represent good business opportunities for small producers whose operations are too small to sell wholesale, where money is made based on volume,” he said. “By selling directly to consumers at a farmers market, small farmers can cut out the middle man and earn a much higher profit margin.”
Before getting involved with a local farmers market, producers should consider the feasibility of adding a new element to their business operation. They should take into account the distance to the market, available assistance for loading and setting up their produce and the documentation of sales through a receipt book or cash register.
When deciding what to sell at a market, producers need to know what products are in demand, he said. Some of the most popular products at Arkansas markets include summer squash, okra, purple hull peas, tomatoes, greens, butter beans, sweet corn, hot peppers and melons.
“Value-added products such as jams, salsas and sweet spreads are increasing in popularity at farmers markets,” Dr. English said. “These products, which are made when raw produce is processed into higher-value, marketable goods, have a longer shelf life and often get a higher price. Producers with excess produce might consider turning it into value-added goods.”
When setting product prices, farmers should first calculate the breakeven price, the amount of money at which produce must be sold to cover the costs of growing and transporting it, he said.
“Generally, producers should sell their products well above the breakeven price,” Dr. English said. “If a certain product is in great demand because of short or limited supply, then the sky is the limit.”
Dr. English said producers stand a better chance of gaining interest and retaining a customer base through some simple promotion strategies. At their market booths, farmers should consider displaying pictures of their farms and individuals working in the fields to create a more personalized feel. They can also use “Arkansas Grown” label stickers, which were created by the Arkansas Agriculture Department to help potential buyers locate products produced by Arkansans. The stickers can be purchased by calling 501-225-1598 or online at www.arkansasgrown.org.
“Both consumers and producers benefit from participation in a local farmers market,” Dr. English said. “A thriving farmers market can strengthen a local food system and a community’s agricultural economy at the same time.”