Q&A: Why Farmers Markets Are Growing in the American South

August 27th, 2014

Federal assistance programs allow low-income regions to enjoy the season’s bounty.

National Geographic
by Gloria Dickie

Image courtesy of Tammy Farrugia

For many living in the lower reaches of the United States, it’s a touch of southern comfort: Farmers markets—with offerings of peaches, sweet corn, watermelon, and cantaloupe—are cropping up across the region, filling “fresh food deserts” with local produce and offering healthier alternatives to low-income families.

New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that between 2013 and 2014, five of the states that saw the biggest increase in farmers markets were in the South—Tennessee (20.2 percent), Louisiana (12.1 percent), Texas (6.6 percent), Arkansas (5.4 percent), and North Carolina (4.8 percent). Combined, the five states now support 725 unique markets.

“I knew that there were some new markets being established in the South, but I didn’t expect for southern states to edge out some of the northeastern states and the western states,” says Arthur Neal, deputy administrator for USDA’s agricultural marketing service.

But the recent gains weren’t as abrupt as some might think, says Bob Lewis. Since co-founding New York City’s Union Square greenmarket in 1976, Lewis has been at the forefront of the farmers market movement in America, working to establish the affordability and accessibility of farmers markets at both the state and federal level.

During National Farmers Market Week, which ends August 9, National Geographic spoke with Lewis about the cultural role of the southern farmers market, and the initiatives that led to its growth.

Why is the expansion of farmers markets in the South so important?

The South is very special. It needs a lot of attention because it has some of the highest incidences of obesity in the country and, of course, poverty. The fact that the markets have continued to grow, especially in the South, where they’re needed, is a very critical development.

But the fact the South has shown the most growth doesn’t say anything negative about the other areas, it just says the South has been catching up and that there have been efforts across this board to weave this system together—that means political leadership in these states. It’s a win-win movement. There are no losers. It’s really a bonafide American story of a bootstrap effort by small producers.

What are some of the political and social factors that may have led to the movement’s growth?

The federal programs are very important because they make healthy, local fresh food available and accessible to people of limited incomes.

But I think it’s important to realize before you even talk about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), you also have to talk about the other programs that operate in the South that have, for years, helped lay the groundwork for this growth.

Without the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which was established in 1992 as a permanent federal program, and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, established in 2001, I doubt we would see the increased activity that’s being reported.

Those programs provide a direct benefit that’s available only at the farmers market. Unlike the SNAP program, [which gives] people, understandably, discretion where to shop, WIC was literally created by Congress to create healthy food access through farmers markets, and it did so by providing a [voucher] during the growing season to every WIC participant.

It provided a means for folks in the South to shop for local produce in their own communities and be able to purchase produce. The [voucher] was extremely low—maybe a one-time $20 or $25—but it got people out who had never been to a farmers market or tasted local, fresh produce. That program brought millions of WIC participants nationally, and then, later, low- to moderate-income seniors, to farmers markets. And this program has been operating in all the southern states—Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi. (See: “The New Face of Hunger”)

But some farmers markets are viewed as high-end retailers that cater to a certain demographic.

Generally speaking the prices at farmers markets are the same or less than any other location because the farmer is selling directly to the consumer and there’s no middle person; the farmer benefits and the consumer benefits. But that can vary; if you’re in Washington, D.C., and you go to Dupont Circle, the prices there are going to be higher. Obviously there’s an upscale aspect to the local food movement, but that’s not what this is about. There are only certain places where the local food movement is focused on high-priced, organic produce. The general rule for farmers markets is that they are conventional farmers, they are small farmers, and they are selling to the general public, without a doubt.

When you think of the South, there are a lot of rural connotations. What about the roadside farm stands? Is the farmers market movement a product of increasing urbanization in the region?

Our country desperately needs social mechanisms to reconnect people to each other. The industrialization of America has been profound. [In small towns] where the main street has essentially deteriorated, the activity of the farmers market once a week brings people back downtown. A farmers market provides the consumer with a lot of choice and diversity; it’s a competitive environment, it’s an educational environment, and it’s a social environment. It’s a place that’s not predictable. It’s not Dunkin’ Donuts. (See: “Top 10 Food Markets”)

Right, it’s not standardized. Culturally speaking, what else might distinguish a southern farmers market?

The South is famous for its specialty crops, and the South, of course, is the center of African-American agriculture in the United States. The growth in the number of markets provides a remarkable opportunity for African-American farmers to strengthen their businesses and connect with folks who want to buy what they’re growing—that includes people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. I love collard greens, but there are certainly folks who use a lot more collard greens than me. I was just in Raleigh, North Carolina, and there were beautiful butter beans, peas, and great beans; these are indigenous fruits and vegetables of the South, and what you’re seeing is a reappearance of these crops grown by family farmers in these communities. They may not be available in the cold, conventional outlets at all.

When you have a farmers market, your cost of selling in the market is minimal. You can come home with the kind of daily income that will keep you wanting to farm and encourage your children to want to farm; which is why the growth of the national farmers market movement is critical to the future of agriculture and is also probably one of the key reasons why we’re seeing a growth in the number of young farmers.

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