The strong trend of consumers seeking food produced close to home and the genuine interest in how agricultural products are grown is changing market dynamics for farmers and retailers.
As the deliberation begins on reauthorizing the farm bill, our nation's leaders have the opportunity to adjust farm policy to embrace the positive trend of strengthening the relationship with the farmers who grow, and the public who consume, the food that sustains everyone.
An advertisement in the 1951 New Jersey Farm Bureau Directory for the Newark Farmers Market Inc. states that it is "FARMER OWNED AND CONTROLLED" and describes itself as ‘The Largest Wholesale Market in the State Located in the Center of the Metropolitan Area of New York and New Jersey." Today, the market is no longer the destination for farmers it once was.
Seik Postma, a retired farmer, fondly recalls the way a farmers market in Queens, New York helped save his family's farm. He explains it was in 1976, when he sold his herd of dairy cows to focus full time on the apple orchard that he had planted years earlier. As fate would have it, a brutal hail storm damaged his premium apples.
It was a farmer's newsletter which alerted him to the potential business opportunity that community leaders in Queens were looking for farmers to sell produce in their new market. With just enough money for tolls and fuel, and the willingness to try something new, he and his wife loaded their truck with the apples and their lawn chairs and made the trip from Sussex County to New York City.
It was there that the good people of Queens purchased every apple — even those that were blemished, at the discounted price of 5 pounds for $1 — ultimately grossing the Postmas $300. The customers kept the couple so busy they never used the lawn chairs.
This one-time event started a relationship that lasted more than 30 years and helped the Postma family keep their 85 acre farm viable. Mr. Postma continued to sell high quality produce in that market until he was 87 years old. The Postma farm is now preserved and the next generation of the family continues farming the land, welcoming the public to visit and pick the farm's bounty.
The customers in the Queens market had no idea they were helping keep a Garden State farm viable. They were motivated to purchase and enjoy the fresh produce Mr. Postma brought every week.
Farmers markets are popular destinations in downtowns and city neighborhoods across America. It is the place to meet friends and purchase high quality agricultural products directly from the people who produce them.
New farmers markets are being created every year. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the number of farmers markets more than doubled in the last decade, growing to 6,132 markets in 2010. This is a clear indication that consumers want these markets and that farmers are making money selling their farm's products at these venues.
Last year, New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn released the FoodWorks New York report. Proposals under the first goal call for building a permanent wholesale farmers market and expanding and supporting farmers markets.
This effort and collaboration is generating a new way of thinking about local and regional food systems and will eventually lead to policy change, strengthening this vital part of the economy.
National leaders can help by continuing to promote and strengthen farmers markets. In addition they can include language, using existing federal resources, in the next Farm Bill to allow federal grants, loans, and loan-guarantees directly connected to helping farmers, to create new, and revitalize existing farmers markets. This action will support efforts to strengthen the rural economy and catalyze redevelopment in cities and towns across America.
A permanent farmers market should be considered as an essential part of the infrastructure of cities and towns just as they once were, but may look different than the markets of 60 years ago. A vibrant market can be the featured destination that brings families and visitors downtown; a place where regional culture is displayed and a venue for artists to show their talent; ultimately bringing new life to town and city centers.
The promise for future farm families like the Postmas and cities like Newark is that building a thriving farmers market can be vital for both.
Charles Kuperus, a Sussex Borough farmer, served as New Jersey's Secretary of Agriculture from 2001-2008. He's on the Internet at CharlieKuperus.com.
ALSO BY CHARLES KUPERUS