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Farmers' Markets: Taking People Back to the Simple Things

Iowa Has the Most Farmers' Markets Per Capita in Nation

Brian Morelli

Iowa City Press-Citizen

July 9, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Pints of blueberries line a folding table. Green husks of corn on the cob fill the back of a pickup truck. Rows of yellow summer squash and green zucchini brighten the aisle at the Coralville Farmers' Market.

The local fresh foods and rhythms of live music at S.T. Morrison Park enticed Chenoa Alamu from her nearby home.

"I just came here to check it out. I think the concept of it is awesome," Alamu said. "It takes you back to the simple things in life -- making food. Things have gotten so complicated with the way our food is manufactured."

One of about 100 patrons Thursday evening at the Coralville Farmers' Market, Alamu browsed the 20 vendors, some not selling vegetables at all, but meats, baked goods or handmade products. Alamu shopped for corn on the cob, collard greens and homemade lotions. The appeal, she said, is buying directly from the source.

"And in the process you can eat healthy," Alamu said.
The popularity of farmers' markets, which generally run from May to October, appears to be on the rise, but that might be only partly due to the desire for local produce. Many markets are events featuring an array of crafts, live music and a family atmosphere where people can socialize.

With 178 markets statewide, including one every day of the week in or just outside Johnson County, Iowa has the most farmers' markets per capita in the nation. Iowa ranks third overall behind California and New York. The markets generate $20.8 million in sales annually for approximately 1,600 vendors and have a $31.5 million economic impact on Iowa, according to Barbara Lovitt, a marketing specialist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship in Des Moines.

"The No. 1 reason people shop at farmers' markets is freshness," Lovitt said. "But there is an effort to making markets a social gathering."

Coralville's market has been operating for more than 15 years, said Matt Hibbard, a recreation center supervisor and farmers' market manager.

"It's always been a bit smaller market," Hibbard said. "I think it has grown in popularity the past few years. I think farmers' markets in general have become more popular over last few years with the desire for organics and local foods."

7 days of local farmers' markets

Ace Hardware/North Dodge Street Farmers' Market: 1 to 3:30 p.m. Sundays and 5 to 8 p.m. Fridays, in the Ace Hardware parking lot, 600 N. Dodge St.

Coralville Farmers' Market: 5 to 8 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays in the S.T. Morrison Park parking lot.

Sycamore Mall Farmers' Market: 3 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays in the mall parking lot.

Iowa City Farmers' Market: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturdays, in the lower level of the Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp.

Washington Farmers' Market: 5 to 7:30 p.m. Thursdays in Central Park, Downtown Square.

Tipton Farmers' Market Association: 4 to 6 p.m. Thursdays at the north side of the Court House.

Mount Vernon Farmers' Market: 4 to 6 p.m. Thursdays and 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. Saturdays at the Mount Vernon Visitors Center.

Coralville now has markets on Mondays and Thursdays. On Thursdays, Music in the Park is a second offering and adds to the draw.

"We try to make going out to the park an event. It made sense to us to coordinate on the same day. Go out to the farmers' market, then go up to Music in the Park," Hibbard said. "It is more of a social event then just shopping."

Consumers visit the market for various reasons, including the entertainment.

Some people are advocates for farmers, organics and local economic benefits. Some people just want an item or two, and others count on the market as a staple in grocery shopping.

Erin Auer-Sears of Iowa City attends the Chauncey Swan parking ramp market most Saturdays and Wednesdays with her husband and three children.

"We get the bulk of our food from the farmers' market," said Auer-Sears, noting they buy what the season offers. "It is important that it is locally grown and organic and you know the people you are buying from."

The prices compare to traditional grocery stores, she said, and the quality is superior.

"If it is a little bit more, it is less than 25 percent more. I can get a good bag of food for less than $10," she said.

The live music and congregation of people also makes the market inviting for the family.

"As far as having a family, it is a nice way to get food and a lovely evening for us. The kids get to run around, and I know that we can always find friends there," Auer-Sears said.

The farmers remain the core of the market. Some sellers are hobbyist, some are retired, some are making supplemental income, but for others the market is their main source of income.

Christine Tygrette vends organic produce from her farm, Oak Hill Acres, at seven markets a week in Johnson County and the Quad Cities. Earnings from markets are she and her husband's primary income.

"This is our living," said Tygrette, noting they also sell produce through community supported agriculture, a cooperative where farmers are paid by consumers to grow items.

It is a hard living, she said, but interacting with customers who will eat the food she picked that day and working outdoors validates what she does.

She said the Chauncey Swan market is her most profitable, estimating about 1,000 people pass through on a given day.

Traveling from market to market with a beef-stocked cooler in the bed of his white pickup, Jay Coffland earns a living at farmers' markets. His Heritage Point Farm is one of the few meat distributors at local markets.

Coffland is one of the venders that add to their earnings through an arrangement with the Department of Human Services that allows them to accept EBT cards, similar to food stamps.

Some markets such Coralville and Chauncey Swan require venders to only sell what they grow. Some farmers' markets have no such regulations, which open the door for entrepreneurs who can buy in bulk and then resell.

Coffland said the market setting allows him to compete against grocery stores versus cutting prices dramatically to sell to grocers.

"I am just competing with grocery stores. And there is a whole lot of difference between what a farmer gets and what a grocer gets," Coffland said.