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Farmers Market week winding down

By Staff | Aug 12, 2011

Even as the unemployment rises and the stock market struggles, one type of market is growing steadily in West Virginia: farmers markets, now numbering 81 locations throughout the state.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has announced Aug. 7 through 13 as National Farmers Market Week a chance for West Virginians to celebrate not only the markets’ summer bounty of fresh produce, but also their healthy economic impact.

“You talk about economic development the farmers market is a stepping-off point for agricultural economic development in West Virginia,” said Tom McConnell, Director of West Virginia University’s Small Farm Center.

McConnell pointed out that with West Virginians spending $7.2 billion on food, farmers markets can help ensure that more and more of those profits stay in West Virginia.

In just six years, the state has seen an increase of almost 140% in farmers markets up from 34 markets in 2005. Those 34 markets had already produced sales of about $1.725 million, leading to an estimated $1.1 million impact on the state’s economy and creation of 43 full-time jobs, according to WVU agricultural economist Cheryl Brown.

Brown predicts that the economic impact has only grown with the rise in farmers markets. Larry Lower, President of the West Virginia Farmers Market Association, explained how farmers market sales tend to create a ripple effect.

“When it’s good for local producers, it’s generally good for the local economy, because money is going back into the local economy instead of large corporate sales,” he said.

Simply a visit to the farmers market can spur customers’ economic activity. At the Morgantown Farmer’s Market, for example, 40% of farmers market customers shop at neighboring businesses and restaurants more often because of their trip to the market, according to a 2009 survey. These extra sales added up to a total of $202,273 for Morgantown, estimated Brown. She added that farmers markets also foster entrepreneurship.

“They create opportunities for farmers to be entrepreneurs and to add an enterprise to their operation. I really think diversification is important. I think that the farmers market really gives them an opportunity that they wouldn’t have,” she said. “I think this then leads to other business opportunities.”

Brown explained that many farmers forge relationships with restaurant owners who shop at the market and eventually start selling directly to the restaurants.

So how are individual West Virginia markets faring in these difficult economic times?

The Morgantown Farmers Market has seen weekly sales more than double from $4,622 in 2006 to $11,592 in 2009. The Berkeley Springs market has attracted 8-10 percent more customers each year, according to Larry Lower who is chair of that market’s committee.

“This is the highest year we’ve ever had,” he said, explaining that he had also discussed sales with the market’s farmers. “Even during this down time, they said they did as well as they did the year before or better.”

Many markets are improving access to fresh food for all consumers, regardless of income level, by accepting SNAP benefits (formerly Food Stamps) and coupons for eligible seniors, women, infants, and children through the Farmers Market Nutrition Program. In turn, those programs also boost economic activity. Last year, the Philippi market began accepting SNAP benefits and also made $3,267 in sales through the Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

“I think it’s great that SNAP recipients have the option to shop at their local farmers markets,” said Brenda Hunt of the Barbour County Community Garden Market in Philippi. “What better way is there to promote healthier nutrition for families than to provide them with easier access to fresh, locally grown produce and foods?

To learn more about farmers markets in West Virginia, visit the WV Farmers Market Association website, at www.wvfarmers.org. For a list of markets, scroll down to the “Find a Farmers Market” graphic and click on “Detailed Version.” For additional resources, visit the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition website, www.wvhub.org/foodandfarmcoalition.