Ms. Bonnie A. Coblentz, MSU Extension Service
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Farmers markets are multiplying across the state as they combine two of the things that Mississippians value most: fresh produce and socializing.
The concept of a central place for area farmers to sell their goods has been around for decades, but the recent, increased focus on shopping locally has caused an uptick in the number of farmers markets across the state.
“You’re not going to find fresher produce at the grocery store or friendlier vendors,” said Marie Rogers, Mississippi State University Extension Service Itawamba County agent. Ann Tackett, Aberdeen Main Street manager and farmers market coordinator, said these events provide the community with healthy food choices.
"Our whole effort is to shop local as we try to preserve our community and the farming experience,” Tackett said.
The MSU Extension Service is a key force behind many of these community resources, with the county Extension office often organizing the area’s market. The Extension Center for Government and Community Development has become a driving force behind the movement, helping communities organize new markets and improve the ones they have.
Courtney Crist, an Extension food safety specialist in the MSU Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion, said these informal markets allow individuals to operate businesses.
“Farmers markets foster entrepreneurship and creativity in multiple sectors such as agriculture, art and food, without the burden of significant investment and the costs of operating a large business,” Crist said.
Rachel Carter, Extension community planning specialist in the Extension Center for Government and Community Development, said farmers markets benefit a community in more than one way.
“Shopping for a good that is produced locally has a greater economic impact on a community than purchasing a similar good that was produced elsewhere because input costs and any wages stay in the community,” Carter said.
Many communities in Mississippi are food deserts, which means they do not have access to healthy food from a store within a reasonable distance. Having farmers markets temporarily alleviates some of that problem on a seasonal basis by providing fresh fruits, vegetables, baked goods and more.
In addition, farmers markets are social events, giving community members opportunities to gather.
“Farmers markets are a draw in the community,” Carter said. “They are a way for people to meet each other, build relationships and be entertained.” Vendors benefit as well.
“Farmers markets are minimally risky for a small business, because the costs of selling products there is low,” Carter said. “Selling products at a farmers market allows the vendor to test a new product and it serves as a way to promote your business to new audiences.”
Chelsea Best coordinates the Hitching Lot Farmers Market in Columbus, Mississippi.
“People love to know about our farmers,” Best said. “They get to meet them face-to-face, learn about what they do and how they make their products.”
MSU Extension recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service to promote local foods. The Extension Center for Government and Community Development is administering the From Gravel Roads to City Streets grant as part of the statewide MSU Extension Growing Your Brand effort.
Grant funds were used to help farmers markets in Itawamba, Lowndes, Clay, Noxubee and Monroe counties. Projects included marketing materials, new signs and a walk-in cooler available to merchants selling fresh-picked produce.