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VOL. 36 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 24, 2012

A bumper crop of farmers markets

Midstate follows national trend as farm-to-table movement blossoms

By Joe Morris

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As fertile as Middle Tennessee is, it used to be a bit of a challenge to find fresh fruits and vegetables. At the height of summer, it was easier to swing by the grocery than head to the countryside in search of a produce stand.

Not anymore. In addition to larger, more-established farmers markets across the Midstate, smaller neighborhood markets are popping up like weeds between cornstalks.

That’s good news for those making an effort to buy local and eat healthier, but are these operations financially viable? Depends on how you look at it, their operators say.

Mirroring a national trend

In many ways, Nashville and Middle Tennessee’s boom in farmers markets is not unusual. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture research shows the number of direct-sales markets nationwide has grown 9.6 percent in the last year. There are now 7,864 and grown nationwide.

In Middle Tennessee, there are more than 20 municipal markets, double the number of just five years ago, and an equal number of privately-run neighborhood outposts, says Tammy Algood, fruit, vegetable and viticulture marketing specialist with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

The increase, Algood says, owes much of its success to the current organic-food trend in both home cooking and restaurants, but she sees larger forces at work as well.

“Even though those of us in agriculture have been preaching the ‘local’ message for years, it has just now cycled back to being fashionable. But I believe this is much more than a fad,” Algood says. “I think that consumers are realizing that this is just plain old smart home economics.

“When you know your farmer you know your food, and this is good for everyone involved. It’s one-stop shopping and an excellent opportunity to educate a young generation to the importance of keeping local dollars local.”

The resurgence in farmers markets means more vendors and variety. So instead of just being a place to snag an occasional tomato on the fly, they have become a destination. That’s been true of both rural and urban sites, says Lisa Shively, editor and publisher of Local Table magazine.

“People are working on the diversity so they can draw a bigger audience,” Shively says. “That means having more than produce. They’ve added meat, dairy, cheeses, desserts, canned and baked goods, a lot of exciting things. And that growth allows the market to continue building on its success, and draw in even more people, and more vendors.”

That’s been the case with the Nashville Farmers’ Market, which houses dozens of farmers and other artisans, inside and outside, in its refurbished sheds and main building at Bicentennial Park.

The market has, in recent years, added a variety of new vendors to augment its fruit and vegetable-selling merchants, as well as nighttime events, specialty weekends and other activities to boost its community presence and make it a more frequent destination for shoppers, says Jolie Ayn Yockey, marketing director.

“We serve as not just a farmers market but a local incubator of sorts, and have been thrilled with the growth of many of our merchants, many of whom have expanded their shops,” Yockey says.

“Several new community stores and partnerships got their start at the Nashville Farmers’ Market, and that’s allowing us to expand our core function. You can get it all here now, so you don’t have to come here for produce, and then go to a ‘big box’ chain grocery store for everything else.”

Some markets are making the determination to restrict what is sold – and by whom – but that choice doesn’t seem to be affecting their success.

“The Franklin Farmers Market has established itself with the public as a true farmers market. There are no food brokers,” says Lisa Tidwell, who handles creative services for the market.

“The primary goal of the Franklin Farmers Market is to support local farmers by providing a reliable, proven marketplace to sell farm goods and remain profitable. The market also strives to educate the public on the values of fresh food from local farms in both taste and nutrition.

“And finally,” Tidwell adds, “the market works to raise awareness and teach the public about the vital role that local farms play in the environment, the economy and aesthetic values of communities.”

In the past decade, the Franklin operation has grown from eight farmers to more than 60, and is now open year round. It has also added a Tuesday open session, though it is now closed for the season, and continues to look at other ways to expand its offerings, Tidwell says.

Growers see benefit in expanded venues

For the farmers, it’s a chance to find a new sales outlet, not only for one-time transactions but also to establish longer-lasting relationships in the form of community-supported agriculture memberships. CSAs allow consumers to sign up for weekly produce deliveries at a pre-set price.

“Farmers markets should be the place you go to buy local produce, freshly picked with full nutritional value at its peak,” says Amy Delvin, who began the East Nashville Farmers’ Market in 2007 and operates Delvin Farms with her parents, Hank and Cindy, who began it in 1972.

The farm turned certified organic in 1998, and operates a CSA. Other family members involved include brother Hank Jr. and wife Liz.

“Customers are used to being able to get any kind of fruit and vegetable they want, year round, in the grocery store,” Amy Delvin says. “As farmers, we have the opportunity to educate consumers on eating seasonally. Customers can talk to the farmers about how they grow their food and how to cook it. That’s the beauty of farmers markets -- connecting with customers.”

The Delvins began interacting with famers markets when the Franklin market opened. They now are attending five: 12th South on Tuesdays, East Nashville on Wednesdays and Forest Hills, West Nashville and Franklin on Saturdays.

That’s a busy schedule, and Delvin cautions against market saturation. If there’s too much choice, customers begin to drop off, vendors begin to dry up and the market fails.

That’s unhealthy in any enterprise, but especially in one where there’s so much remedial work being done in terms of providing healthier foods to the public.

“Nashville is just now getting more educated about buying locally and knowing where one’s food is grown,” Delvin says. “I think what’s missing in the farmers markets is education. Markets bring together the consumer and farmer. Consumers can talk to the farmer about their product, how it is grown and how to cook it.

“It brings communities together and creates a learning atmosphere and a social atmosphere. People talk to each other about how to cook the vegetables, what cheese is good, where they buy their milk, meat and bread. The wonderful thing about markets is that they can talk to the producer of these items! That’s something you can’t do at Publix or Kroger.”

Growth Pains, Financial Challenges

The growth of farmers markets, both here and nationwide, is multi-layered. The trend within a trend is the rise of neighborhood markets, such as the one in East Nashville. Smaller and limited in scope, these markets are a logical next step in the move to buy and eat local, Algood says.

“They serve as an avenue for many to revitalize their once-abandoned downtowns and return customers and visitors to the areas of their communities where the urban area literally began,” Algood says.

In fact, many point to the markets’ ability to bring people into a city center or neighborhood that host markets as proof of their potency as an economic development engine, or at the very least a quality of life booster.

Those arguments are usually made as a counterpoint to detractors who say that the markets, especially municipal ones, often bleed red ink.

In Nashville, for example, the hope has long been that the farmers market would eventually not require a subsidy from Metro. Newly overhauled just before the May 2010 floods, and then restored again, the market draws large crowds and has had success renting its indoor space to a variety of merchants.

Projections from earlier this year indicated that the market would likely have a shortfall of more than $300,000 by July 1, when the new budget year began. Metro’s subsidy for the market was $89,900 last year, down from $270,000 three years ago, and the overall picture isn’t clear because the market’s budget contains a mix of operating expenses and capital-renovation repayments to Metro.

In fact, a second set of numbers showed an $80,000 surplus for the previous fiscal year, and so the market’s actual financial health remains a subject of debate.

Another issue to be considered in the unique business model a market proposes. Whether it is a 16-acre operation, such as Nashville, or a smaller outpost in Franklin, Clarksville or elsewhere, Algood points out that growth is never easy, no matter what the business, so some hiccups are to be expected as the venues morph into larger-scale operations.

Find a market

There are currently 21 municipal farmers markets in Middle Tennessee:

Davidson: 7
Wilson: 4
Rutherford: 3
Williamson: 3
Sumner: 2
Cheatham: 1
Robertson: 1

Find a farmers market through the following websites:

Pick TN Products
Tennessee Dept. of Agriculture
USDA

“Keep in mind that farmers markets started very simply; it was a gathering of producers who brought their goods to one central place to sell,” she says. “Word spread through the mouths of their customers as to the location and times of arrival. The sales area was frequently out of the back of their trucks and they stayed until the items they brought were gone.

“From there, we have progressed to some markets that have matching tents for everyone selling to others that have lovely covered areas and paved parking.”

Algood says vendor coordination, and input, is always the underpinning of a successful location. Yockey agrees, pointing out that whether it’s a produce farmer or artisan cheese maker, these are usually small or startup businesses and they rely on the other vendors, as well as the market’s operators, for a certain amount of expertise to help get going.

“We offer a very low cost, low commitment for most opting to ‘test the waters,’ so to speak vs. a big build-out, a web-based business or traditional models,” she says.

Community Gathering Spot, Education Source

Market boosters also point out the quality of life aspects of these spots as a counterargument to the financial detractors. It’s a less-tangible point of view as far as economic impact goes, but supporters say tourism, educational programs for residents and special events allow markets to play a strong role in the community.

“These markets are accomplishing what is the equivalent of a tourism boom in many locations,” Algood says. “They are getting crowds of people in a central location, which is a reason to also stop for coffee, browse in a hardware store or grab an early bite to eat. The atmosphere encourages walking and reduces stress simply by slowing people down and making them aware of neighborhoods they might not notice on another day.”

In Franklin, the city “sees the market as a big benefit to the community,” Tidwell adds. “They’ve generously provided land for the market to use as a kids’ garden over the past two years. And this year, they invited us to conduct our weekday market in the Park at Harlinsdale Farm. That was a huge benefit for the market.

“And because the market takes place behind The Factory, we also draw a lot of attention and traffic to The Factory, which is a great place for shopping and special events. We like them, they like us, and I believe we’ll be working together for the mutual benefit of the farmers and the city for a long time.”

“The markets are meeting places; they are community gather points and they are a business,” Shively adds.

“They use old business models like newsletters and new ones like Facebook and Twitter. They add to neighborhoods, and are of benefit to consumers. They aren’t without their challenges, but they are really great places, and they will continue to do well as people pay more and more attention to how and where their food is grown.”

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