Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sentinel column - 10/31

I have just returned from a conference in Kansas City on refugees and agriculture. Watoua (Scott) Yang and I presented information on Webb City’s market and the market’s work with immigrant farmers. It was a little intimidating to find our presentation titled on the agenda as “Farmers Markets: Preparing refugees to participate in a high performance Farmers Market”. We have a nice market, but “high performance”?

Frankly, I’m not sure that description fits our market, but I do hope that our market is a good fit for Webb City. Unlike national franchise businesses, markets need to vary according to the needs and desires of the local community. Farmers markets should be the epitome of local – local produce, local farmers, local customers, and in our case, local non-profits and local musicians. It’s always fun to have visitors from distant places, but we are here to serve local folks. So when I give presentations, I emphasize that our market isn’t a template for any others. Steal a few good ideas, but make your market your own. Communities are different, and their markets should be different, as well.

Some things that seem to catch the attention of audiences:

Cooking for a Cause and our engagement of so many non-profits in the community as well as the support of our customers for those non-profits. I think it’s probably the only program of its kind in the country and we couldn’t do it without the help of our super volunteer Donna Krudwig and the availability of the certified kitchen at Central United Methodist Church.

Donna once ran the senior center in Joplin and received extensive food safety training for her responsibilities there. With new volunteers coming in each week, often with no background in health department regulations, Donna’s supervision is critical in making sure that Cooking for a Cause operates safely.

Our music and the support we receive from the Missouri Arts Council. We are the only market in the state that has, to date, received grants from MAC in support of live traditional music. Our vendors think the music is so important that this year we budgeted about one-half of our annual income to supplement that grant so we can have music at every market. (We budgeted another one-quarter to subsidize Cooking for a Cause.) You might ask why the arts council and the vendors would commit funding to music at a market. It is because we believe it contributes significantly to our atmosphere, that it brings a real sparkle to the market and that it helps us reach our goal of being a community gathering place. We also think it makes us stand out from other markets that don’t have music or only have casual street performers. The music makes every market an event.

It also provides musicians a venue to perform and some small compensation, which makes for a stronger arts community. We are very fortunate in this area to have some very talented musicians. It is important that they have a place to perform, as well as gas money to get here.

Our education program is far more extensive than that of any other market I have come across. We work closely with University of Missouri Extension to provide training and workshops to our growers and to the public. Our work with our immigrant growers has drawn national attention, but I think all our education efforts from the Kids Community Garden to our five workshops last year on such topics as attracting and protecting pollinators and improving soil fertility have been valuable. Most of our growers have participated in workshops on food safety from field to market. (That seemed to catch the attention of the folks from USDA at the conference.)

Our installation of wireless EBT, debit and credit puts us among a handful of markets nationwide. Installing EBT (electronic benefit transfer, the new term for food stamps) in farmers markets will be a major push in the next few years by the USDA. Increasing access to fresh, local produce, often at a lower price than otherwise available, is seen as promoting good nutrition and as a wise use of public funds.

Plus to my way of thinking, it makes a lot of sense for everyone’s pocket book. After all, literally millions of dollars go through EBT to purchase produce in the state of Missouri. When spent at a farmers market, those dollars go directly to local growers and are spent again in the region. When spent at a grocery store, much of the dollars go to the grocery store which may not be locally owned and almost all of the dollars that go to growers selling through grocery stores go either out of state (to places like California) or out of the country. I’m a firm believer in sending our dollars around locally as many times as we can before we send them off to other parts of the country or world.

I could go on about what a good partner the schools are, our small business incubation program, the great support we’re given by the media, including this paper, the wonderful sense of family among our vendors (which is apparently relatively unusual at farmers markets), and our great group of volunteers, but then I wouldn’t have room to tell you what you really need to know which is what’s happening at the market today!

Lunch is chili with all the fixin’s, brownie and drink for $5. The Loose Notes will play during lunch. The market has commissioned Hazel’s Bakery to make a Halloween cookie for every child that visits today, and the Lions Club will have their drawing at 1 p.m. for their 3-wheeler.

Today is the last day of the regular season. Next week we become the Winter Market. It will be the first and third Friday of each month from 11 to 2.

It’s been a great season. Thanks.