Farmers Market selected for statewide program
The Pocahontas County Farmers Market has been selected to participate in a pilot program designed to help develop farmers markets across the state. West Virginia Farmers Market Association president Larry Lower recently visited the local market as one of the first steps in getting the project off the ground. Lower helped form the organization in 2007.
"It grew out of discussions that took place at the Small Farm Conference at WVU," Lower explained. "They were trying to promote growing for young farmers and new farmers. There was all kinds of discussions about 'if we start producing, where do we sell it? We need somebody to help us establish farmers markets.' After a couple of years of gnawing on it, we decided to bite the bullet."
Lower said the WVFMA operated for five years with only a board of directors.
"They were trying to do everything and it wasn't very successful because they were all busy people. They agreed to be on the board because they had a passion about it, but then they had a passion about a lot of things." joked Lower. "So last year we made the decision that we either had to give up, or we had to go after some help."
Lower said the organization approached the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation in Pittsburgh.
"They've done a lot of work in community development in West Virginia," Lower said. "They feel very strongly about it and they fund a lot of the work for the West Virginia Community Hub out of Clarksburg. With their help, we applied for a grant to get some help and do a project to really start working with farmers markets."
Lower said the WVFMA is partnering with the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, the West Virginia Community Development Hub and West Virginia University to get the project rolling.
"West Virginia got started a little bit late in the national movement to get local foods produced and marketed effectively," Lower said. "There's a huge push federally to support this, partly for health reasons, partly for economic development reasons. There's now about ninety markets in West Virginia, compared to about forty, only five years ago. Markets are popping up all over the place."
Lower said farmers markets are important for rural economies.
"The dollars that get spent with local producers stay in the community. Whereas, if you even have a shopping center or something like that, that money goes away, it leaves the community. We're trying to find a way to get people to make some income off their farms."
Lower said another benefit for program participants will be the chance to work with other farmers markets across the state.
"It's a networking process," Lower said. "Four times a year, the representatives from those ten markets will come together with us and the university to share their successes - what worked for them, what didn't work for them."
According to Lower, the project will focus on the needs of each individual market.
"Do you need more producers? Do you need technical information on how to grow certain crops? Is it an issue about marketing or structure? The markets are going to be telling us what they perceive is essential for their growth," Lower said. "We'll share how other markets have succeeded. Then we'll come up with some projects the markets can undertake over the next two years to help them grow."
There is even funding available once each custom project is developed.
Lower said only 10 applicants were selected for the program, and he was impressed with what he saw on Saturday - despite the morning showers.
"You've got a number of dedicated folks. I suspect there would've been a few more here today if not for the weather," laughed Lower. "But it looks like there's a lot of potential to grow and that's one of the reasons we're here."
Kelly Crane, project coordinator for the grant, agreed with Lower.
"Your market is really vibrant," commented Crane. "Great impression. We pulled up and it was pouring rain, but the customers were all here, the vendors were all set up."
Crane, a grower herself, shares the same passion as the local producers at the mini-park. She worked for the Senate Education Committee before making a conscious decision to change industries and get onboard with the WVFMA.
Crane said the next step for the project will be to collect data the participating markets have been recording, to measure economic impact. After that, the individual markets will be working with consultants to apply for project funding.
"They'll work with a consultant that we hook them up with to develop a proposal," explained Crane. "In the spring of 2013 they'll submit their proposal and, as long as it's within the parameters of the grant, they can use the money to develop a website, or work with someone to craft a marketing plan, or whatever. It's going to be driven by the needs of the participants."
This is Tolly Peuleche's first year as president of the Farmers Market, but this is her fifth year being involved, and she's had a chance to see what the market's needs are.
"What we specifically want is to attract new producers," said Peuleche. "We need some help in figuring out how to do that. I think we're doing really well with crafts, jams, jellies and breads, but I think we're a little short sometimes on produce."
Peuleche said she's excited about the pilot program, but it was actually Marcia Laska that had a lot to do with getting involved with the program.
"She's masterminded a lot of this," said Peuleche. "I'm very supportive of it, but Marcia has done all the leg work. I think it's a great project and I'm looking forward to meeting some of the other people from other markets that got selected. I think all that interaction has to be good for us. You never know what we might learn. I suspect there will be some unexpected benefits."