Sustaining Local Economies

By: Zoe Brawner

A burgeoning network of food artisans, purveyors and growers anticipate the opening day of the Athens Farmers Market, set to kickoff on April 6.

In the last decade, according to Local Harvest, farmers markets have become a weekly ritual for many shoppers as well as a favorite marketing method for farmers. In Athens, officials report the Athens Farmers Market attendance has more than doubled.

The Athens Farmers Market sells its products twice a week. Every Saturday the Athens Farmers Market is at Bishop Park from 8am until noon and on Wednesdays it is located at City Hall from 4 p.m.-7p.m.

Today there are almost two million farms in the United States. Local Harvest states that about 80 percent of those farms are small farms and a large percentage of these are family owned. When you look at a map that identifies farmers markets across the nation, it is a sea of hundreds if not thousands of red dots. http://www.localharvest.org/. Local Harvest’s map of all of the farms in the United States allows you to find a small farm near you to support your local farmer.

Customers arrive to the sound of live music at the Athens Farmers Market. They grab a freshly brewed cup of Thousand Faces coffee. Then roam from booth to booth, buying seasonal produce from their favorite growers.

All of this occurs while visiting with neighbors, old friends and making new friends. Customers try new foods they have never cooked at home while children wander at will in the protected confines of the market.

They are free to dance and sing to the music of a local musician. Growers offer recipes and tips to cooking the current season’s produce.  If the customer’s timing is right, they can watch a cooking demonstration by a local chef and taste a sample of the outcome.

As the customer leaves, they stop for fresh eggs, field-fed meat and dairy products. But most importantly, when the customer prepares and eats their food from the market, they remember the relaxing experience and appreciate the tasty and nutritious food they are eating.

The Athens Farmers Market establishes a tighter connection between producers and consumers of locally grown produce.  Co-founder of the Athens Farmers Market, Jerry NeSmith, says they require that the growers come to the market to sell their products. NeSmith said that the Athens Farmers Market nourishes and encourages the relationship between the consumer and the grower. It creates a sense of community between the local citizens and local farmers.

College student Rachel Barnes is a frequent customer at the Athens Farmers Market just for that reason.

“I shop at the Athens Farmers Market for many reasons, namely that I like to know exactly where my food comes from.  I can ask the growers questions about how to prepare it, and I am supporting people within my community.  I’d give my money to a local, family-owned farm than a corporation any day!”

There is no surprise why the Athens Farmers Market has hundreds of “regulars” that come every week and are on a first name basis with the growers. NeSmith even stated that growers often invite customers to their farm for visits. Recently, the Athens Farmers Market attendance has risen from an average of 800 adult visitors to almost 2000. NeSmith says the Athens Farmers Market has doubled the number of growers at the market since their first market in 2008.

Juan VillaVeces, a vendor at the Athens Farmers Market, and his family have been a part of the Athens community for over 35 years. His family has a history of cooking in Athens. As a food purveyor, VillaVeces provides prepared foods using locally produced ingredients. VillaVeces says that some of their customers actually guide their recipes and what he actually brings to the market. VillaVeces mainly sells empanadas. Occasionally he offers tamales. He also has an assortment of muffins, baklava, pastries, and anything else he wants to experiment with in gluten free products.

“We sell our products at the Athens Farmers Market because Athens is not big enough to sustain our business exclusively with one venue. Although some of the customers are the same people who go to the farmers market. The market is also a social event. It has been beneficial for my children to be involved and have something to do on the weekends.”

Community Supported Agriculture programs are similar to farmers markets due to the fact that CSAs have also become a viable source to financially support these farmers and increase local consumption. Typically the farmer will provide a certain number of “shares” to the public, which is often a box of vegetables. Consumers can purchase a membership with seasonal subscription fees in advance. In return the consumer will receive weekly shares of produce throughout the course of the growing season.

Athens.LocallyGrown.net is an example of an established Community Supported Agriculture program. Dan and Kristen Miller founded Athens Locally Grown in 2001 and have continued to grow this CSA. Today Athens Locally Grown sells a wide range of products to over 4,000 individuals, families, local restaurants, and grocery stores. In other CSA programs members receive the same box of stuff. However, Athens Locally Grown lets consumers choose which items they want, the quantities, and from which farm they want their produce. Athens Locally Grown sends members a weekly email each Sunday evening that contains a list of the produce, milled products, fresh flowers, and artisan goods that are available each week. Consumers simply browse the available items on the website emailed to them before they place their order online. Members pick up their orders between 4:30 p.m. -8:00 p.m. each Thursday at Ben’s Bikes.

CSAs like Athens Grown Locally and farmers markets like the Athens Farmers Market, have many benefits. When consumers support a local business by purchasing local items, consumers provide stability to the local economy. Consumers of local products are individuals involved in the process of saving resources including packaging materials and gas. Locally Grown and Athens Farmers Market supporters help educate the community about the importance of sustainable agriculture as well as preserve a way of life. Both believe that small, diverse, family-owned farms contribute to a society’s health.

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