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Growers find perfect fit with farmers markets
RAYMOND, Miss. -- A profitable sales outlet and a ready-made customer base make farmers markets the ideal channels for small-scale producers to sell their crops.
“Price and demand both drive the success of farmers markets,” said Rick Snyder, vegetable specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service and researcher with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station in Crystal Springs. “Growers are able to cut out the wholesale middleman and sell their fresh produce to the consumer at retail prices.
“Many customers today are locavores who make it a point to buy local, and the grower doesn’t have to go looking for them. They will be there. They want fresher fruits and vegetables to feed their families. And nothing is fresher than produce grown right in your town or county,” Snyder said.
In 2004, Mississippi had 23 known farmers markets. That number steadily increased to 84 by 2014.
More markets allow growers to sell in multiple towns and spread out their harvest days, Snyder said.
Leon Eaton, who owns Triple Eaton Farms in Mount Olive, uses this strategy. He grows tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants and other vegetables hydroponically and sells them from his farm and at farmers markets throughout the southern half of the state, including Crystal Springs, Hattiesburg and Gulfport.
“I bought the farm in 2005 and wanted a way to make the farm a year-round, sustainable business,” Eaton said. “I discovered tomatoes are a good seller, and that hydroponic was the best way to produce them.”
Vegetables produced hydroponically are grown without soil in a greenhouse and fed nutrients through a computerized watering system. This technique reduces the challenges posed by insects and diseases and extends the growing season for vine-ripened tomatoes.
During peak production in the summer, Eaton’s operation yields 4,000 pounds of tomatoes per week. Although he plans to pursue selling his vegetables to commercial grocery stores, he intends to continue offering his products at farmers markets.
“I like the opportunity that farmers markets offer for networking with other producers and getting feedback from customers,” Eaton said. “I also like providing products people want. Customers line up to buy our produce.”
Eaton uses no chemical pesticides to produce his vegetables, which is a benefit highly valued by many customers.
The interest in naturally grown produce has increased demand for locally grown crops, said David Nagel, Extension horticulture specialist. Other factors influencing the rise in farmers markets include national health recalls of produce and a struggling economy with fewer jobs. Mississippi has benefited from a strong effort by the MSU Extension Service and the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce to develop farmers markets and create a positive environment for growers and consumers.
Increased demand means there is plenty of room in the market for new growers.
“It takes many growers to sustain farmers markets, but interested individuals should do their research before growing for farmers markets,” Nagel said. “Each location is unique, and some vegetables do well in some locations but not very well in others. New growers should understand the local market and decide what needs are not being met.”
For more information about farmers markets, visit http://www.farmersmarkets.msstate.edu.