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Farmers' markets benefit producers and consumers
By Allison Matthews
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A farmers' market can draw a crowd with its local, farm-fresh vegetables, and organizers are hoping more producers will be attracted as well.
David Nagel, Extension plant and soil sciences specialist at Mississippi State University, said farmers' markets give everyone an advantage, often one that consumers may have a hard time finding elsewhere.
Nagel said consumers can enjoy fresh, high-quality products and direct contact with growers. Producers have a place to sell their vegetables for a profit, but can often beat supermarket prices.
"A benefit for growers is they sell at retail rather than wholesale prices at farmers' markets. The markup is about double, but the prices are generally about the same or slightly less than at supermarkets," Nagel said.
Consumers can buy much fresher foods for a comparable price. Demand is high because fewer people are growing their own vegetables.
"The farmers' markets are about as close as people can get to growing it themselves," Nagel said.
"At the supermarket, a vegetable for sale is probably picked six days before. At a farmers' market, it is either picked the day before or that morning," he said.
The quality of a garden product goes down the longer it is removed from its plant. Fruits and vegetables sold at supermarkets are sometimes chemically treated to last longer.
"Tomatoes are often picked green and treated with ethylene to induce ripening. Ethylene is a naturally occurring compound in tomatoes, but when the plant makes its own, the tomato has more sugar and flavor compounds," Nagel said. The farmers' market gives consumers the advantage of buying foods with a more "home- grown" taste.
Consumer demand for these locally grown vegetables is high. Nagel said farmers' markets face a much more serious problem with supply than they do with demand. He is working with the Extension Service to encourage more growers to combine their efforts. Producers can make money, consumers can get a better product, and a farmers' market fosters a sense of community. It is also beneficial to the local economy.
"We're talking to people who either are already farming or are looking for a way to use their land," Nagel said. "Many farmers would like an alternative to row cropping to make money. We are trying to get growers together to develop organization, designate a central sales location, and set dates and standards."
An Extension publication is available to help farmers estimate their budgets and how much money they can expect to earn. Farmers can find the information on planning vegetable budgets at county Extension offices that will tell how much it costs and how much an average yield at an average cost will make.
"Farmers' markets are an example of one area of retail where customers are not a problem," Nagel said.
In Mississippi, most farmers' markets are seasonal and occur two or three times per week during the growing season. Nagel said farmers' markets can include a wide range of growers, from someone with a few tomato plants who wants to earn a little extra money to someone who wants to make a living from farming. Farmers' markets are ideal for those who can't produce enough to meet the large demands of supermarkets. Nagel said most grocery companies want to buy at least 40,000 pounds at one time.
Lowndes County grower M.C. Ellis, owner of Mayhew Tomato Farm, said attending farmers' markets has been a vital part of his retail sales.
"You've got your product fresh and eye-to-eye contact with the people who want to buy your vegetables," Ellis said. "We strive to learn our customers' names, and growers will get a lot of business that way."
He said he welcomes other farmers to participate in the markets because more vendors attract more customers and add variety.