It’s Market Time

WORDS Liesel Schmidt
IMAGES courtesy featured markets

Ah…summer! The sunny weather, the long days, the weekends filled with things to do and see. Your calendar is quickly filling up; and, if you’re like countless people all over the country, you may already be planning a trip to the farmers market.

By definition, farmers markets are public assemblies of farmers (or, as the case may be, their representatives) selling their crops or products straight to their customers without the middleman. In these times of big box stores and grocery chains, it’s a way to forge a personal connection between farmers, shoppers, and communities that is beneficial in multiple ways. Farmers receive more money for their products, shoppers receive the highest quality local foods, and local economies prosper. For thousands of cities across the nation, the local color and flavor of the region is displayed at their local farmers markets. In fact, since 1994, the number of USDA registered markets in the U.S. has grown from just under 2,000 to more than 8,600, proving both the success and the popularity of these community events.

There are, of course, guidelines that must be followed for any vendors participating in farmers markets and operating rules that ensure the farmers market consists primarily of farms selling products that they have produced. And while the offerings at these markets may widely vary, they always reflect a region’s agriculture and seasons. Some markets are seasonal and comprise a small number of vendors, while others involve hundreds of vendors and are held all year long. Some markets concentrate on produce, while others offer everything from fruits and veggies to baked goods, meat, eggs, flowers, and dairy products. It’s common for farmers markets to include locally made crafts or prepared foods, as well; and as the number of markets grows, so does the variety of foods available. As a state filled with agriculture, Arkansas is rich with farmers markets. Naturally, they reflect their local resources, making them unique from one another. Still, they have one commonality: fun.

“During each of our markets, we feature vendors offering seasonal produce, local honey, baked goods, coffee, and handmade jewelry and crafts, as well as artisans who display original woodworking, knives, paintings, pottery, and more. Because we want to appeal to families and make it fun for the whole community, the event also includes live music, local talent acts, kids’ activities, and seasonal attractions, as well as a presence by local food trucks,” says Lorie Robertson, Director of Marketing for Chaffee Crossing Farmers & Artisans Market, in Fort Smith, Arkansas. As a monthly event, the market is something that the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority makes genuinely spectacular, with themes and featured activities that draw the community in and make them want to participate. At the heart of it all, however, is still the concentration on local flavor.

“We can have up to seventy-three vendors on the square in the busiest part of the season; and while we are mostly a farmers market, we do have art and craft vendors as well as food vendors who sell processed products that are locally made,” says Teresa Maurer, Vendor Coordinator at Fayetteville Farmers Market, which was founded in 1973. “In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, we also have people who sell locally produced honey, meat, cheeses, and baked goods. Our market requires that all products are grown or made within the counties of Washington, Benton, Carroll, and Madison.”

Naturally, COVID has taken a toll on the farmers markets, but we are seeing a resurgence in their numbers. “During the scaled back COVID-19 market, we’ve had roughly sixty vendors at the markets; but during a traditional year, we see between eighty and one hundred,” says Bentonville Farmers Market Manager Stephanie Marpe. For more than fifty years, the market has been held every Thursday and Saturday from mid-April to October, offering such goods as mushrooms, meat, bread, salsa, jerky, pasta and pasta sauce, tons of produce, baked goods, handmade items, candles, berries, apples, peaches, leatherwork, and woodwork. “Bentonville Farmers Market is a maker/producer-only market, and the people selling the items are often the makers or producers themselves.”

“We average fifty to seventy-five vendors per week, with local, in-season farm fresh produce as well as regional, out-of-season fresh produce,” says Diana Long, Director of River Market Operations for Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, which operates the Little Rock Farmers Market. Held every Saturday from May through September since 1974, the market is in its 47th year. “We also have several Hmong families that live locally and grow a variety of Asian specialty crops that would not be common to our area otherwise, including bok choy, Japanese long bean, bitter melon, squash flowers, and Thai peppers. We’re very much a public market, so while we focus on and prioritize the local produce and meats, we also have locally prepared foods, artists, crafters, boutique clothing, and more. During a normal season, we also host a variety of community programming at our market for both adults and children.”

While the fun may be a significant factor, the importance of the markets is undeniable. “Farmers markets are critical in getting fresh, healthy food to people in need, especially in food deserts and rural areas,” says Diana. “The healthier the food we can get people to eat, the better off our population is in terms of quality and length of life. The sense of community a farmers market creates is also a huge benefit to people who live here as well as people who enjoy the market as a visitor. The unique experiences with local folks and local products, running into folks you know or meeting new people—it just enriches all of our lives and makes our community stronger.”

“Farmers markets offer a chance for customers to interact directly with the people who make or grow the products that they buy,” adds Teresa. “They offer a chance for sellers—especially farmers—to offer their products directly and get income each time they are at market. Also, the dollars spent at a farmers market cycle in the local community many more times than dollars spent for groceries and other products at national retail stores.”

“Not only do farmers markets support the local economy and encourage community, but they make farming a more profitable venture, preserve our rapidly disappearing farmland, and encourage a new generation to take up farming,” Stephanie asserts.

Even in these times of convenience and technology, farmers markets are a reminder of what our hands can create, what the land has to offer, and what quality tastes like. Take time to explore what is all around you, and you may find treasures you never realized were in your own backyard.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Chaffee Crossing Farmers & Artisans Market: ChaffeeCrossing.com
Little Rock Farmers Market: RiverMarket.Info
Fayetteville Farmers Market: FayettevilleFarmersMarket.org
Bentonville Farmers Market: DowntownBentonville.org

 

 

 

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