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Growing community

Farmers markets, ag venues are more than tomatoes and sweet corn

Linda Peebles, left, and Vickie Fritzsche, greet Debbie Buckley at the Fort Thomas Wednesday Farmers Market in Campbell County. Photo (pre-COVID): Campbell County Extension Service
Charlie Hendricks from Three Toads Farm in Clark County with a colorful assortment of zinnias and lisianthus at the Lexington Farmers Market. Photo: Anita Travis Richter
At the Lexington Farmers Market, a patron looks over a bountiful selection from Raggard’s Creekside farm in Shelby County. Photo: Anita Travis Richter
Emma Burton and sisters Kennedy and Cadence Booth check out the tomatoes at the D&D Longview Angus booth at The Farmers’ Market on the Square in Columbia. Photo: Joe Imel

A KENTUCKY FARMERS MARKET IS MORE than a favorite spot for getting summer tomatoes, homemade jams and jellies or that extra-delicious side of beef. 

The most important role it plays may be one that is less tangible—the role of building pride and increased value in community. As patrons get to know the proprietor or farmer who produces tasty, fresh and locally sourced foods, they also make the markets a venue for forging community connections. 

A University of Kentucky survey with the Campbell County Farmers Market shows a higher level of interaction with the vendors and patrons at the farmers market compared with other market settings. The survey shows that farmers market patrons also are more likely to volunteer and attend social functions in their communities and make mindful decisions about the food they buy. 

“This sends a signal that market patrons care about what’s going on at the farm. One could make a good case that this is also part of community building,” says Timothy Woods, an extension professor at the University of Kentucky. 

Markets masked, but open 

Gov. Andy Beshear’s initial pandemic order a year ago exempted Kentucky’s agriculture sector businesses, farmers markets and ag tourism destinations from closure. The state agriculture department followed up with guidance on safe practices for the venues. 

“Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, we fought to keep agriculture open for business,” says Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles. “This effort included making sure that farmers markets were declared essential as well. It is important to realize that Kentucky farmers markets were on the leading edge of developing a way to protect themselves and consumers during the pandemic.” 

In fact, Quarles notes, there was in increase in buying local in 2020, which he hopes will be a trend this year. 

Compared with the global footprint of Kentucky agriculture— poultry, for example, generates more than $1 billion for Kentucky farmers each year—the $15 million generated annually at Kentucky’s farm markets makes up a small portion of agriculture receipts. But the approximately 2,700 vendors at those markets provide a high-profile view of food and agriculture in communities across Kentucky. 

Farm markets in communities where consumers are not physically close to farms have an especially important role, Woods says, by “keeping an awareness of farms, fresh food and community organized in part around good food.” 

The UK research also shows that farmers markets play an increasingly important role as an access point for recipients of federal nutrition assistance for needy families and children (SNAP, WIC) and other food-insecure parts of a community. 

Economic impact, too 

Whether it is for social, economic or taste reasons, consumers are following the trend toward locally grown or sourced foods with their pocketbooks. 

Kentucky farmers are meeting those demands. The Kentucky Proud program, which began in 2004, now has more than 10,000 participants. There are more than 160 farmers markets in the state, covering 110 counties, and nearly 100 certified farm markets. 

Small family farms dominate Kentucky agriculture, and sometimes traditional agriculture is not enough to enable farmers to pay the bills. Besides farmers markets, the creation of farm experiences, or agribusiness, is proving profitable for some, while creating a service for the community. 

In addition, these ventures provide year-round employment to retain farm workers who help during busy harvest times. This helps to create family time for farmers, whose kids can take part in the operation. 

Many people make it a weekly ritual to go to their local farmers market for whatever is in season, whether it’s for flowers in the spring, watermelons in summer, or apples and pumpkins in the fall. 

Kentuckians who support local agriculture aren’t just getting a seasonal treat, they are contributing to the fabric of their community and stimulating their local economies. 

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