By Richard Calkins
The Johnson County Farmers Market has come a long way since its founding in 2008 by a pioneering group of local producers. With the recent approval to build a permanent home at Ralph Stout Park, the summer-time farmers market is now a well-established local institution.
The aim of the market, from the beginning, has been two-fold. First, to bring fresh, locally-grown produce to the residents of Johnson and surrounding counties, not just because it tastes better and lasts longer, but also to support healthy eating. And second, to support the local economy by helping area farmers, and those producing value-added agricultural products, to grow their income by selling directly to consumers.
More recently, we’ve launched a winter-time farmers market, with essentially the same two objectives. As with the start-up of the summer market, however, it will take time to develop into a fully established local institution.
The good news is that we have had a very successful start-up. Located in the warm and cozy basement of the welcome center, our first Saturday session attracted a dozen different vendors and more than 150 customers. We were able to offer a variety of fresh, local produce, from hydroponically-grown lettuce to organically grown carrots and collards, from the last of the tomatoes and eggplant to the first of the cool-weather crops like kale, spinach, and bok choi, along with freshly-pressed apple cider, farm-fresh eggs, jams and jellies, local honey, and freshly-baked bread and pastries. We also had a number of craft vendors offering jewelry, lotions and soaps, stained-glass items, Christmas ornaments, and the like – just in time for the holidays.
The importance of the winter market, however, goes well beyond the virtues and benefits of a traditional summer farmers market. What we are trying to do, in fact, is to help in the development of an entirely new form of agricultural enterprise. While Johnson County has been predominantly an agriculture-based economy from the time of the European settlers, it has become almost impossible to make a living on a traditional family farm. With the demise of the green bean market, the disappearance of dairy farms, and the loss of tobacco as a cash crop, about all that’s left is beef cattle and hay.
Given the start-up costs of land, equipment, and cattle, it is nearly impossible for beginning farmers to make a start, and even for those inheriting a family operation, the uncertainty surrounding market prices make it a somewhat risky undertaking. And yet there is growing enthusiasm among young people, veterans, and even retirees for getting into the farming business. There is also a large and growing number of “support groups” for beginning farmers in this area. Increasingly, these aspiring farmers are adopting a different farming model, one developed (among others) by Elliot Coleman in Maine and JM Fortier in Quebec, Canada, often referred to as “market gardening”.
This model involves four key, complementary and inter-dependent elements: growing with organic methods (of increasing importance to consumers, and with a higher price point); intensive (using only two acres or less); four-season (using season-extending methods such as “hoop houses” to maximize annual production), and direct-to-consumers marketing (cutting out the middle-man).
One of the challenges of implementing this model, of course, is that of the “chicken and egg”: without a sufficient number of local farmers growing year-round, it’s difficult to establish a winter market; and without an established winter market, it’s difficult for four-season market farmers to get up and running. But here in Johnson County, we’ve made a start. With the support of the community, we are confident that we can grow the number of farm families able to share in this endeavor, simultaneously expanding their family income and meeting the demand that clearly exists for fresh, locally-grown (and value-added) agricultural products.