One year ago, Tiffany Selvey was an urban farmer looking for the right venue to sell her products, but when she couldn’t find a good fit she started the ball rolling on a new market.
Now, the Master-Gardener-turned-market-organizer has lined up 39 vendors, live music acts for each week, and a string of special events, ahead of the Mill Street Market opening April 30 in downtown Springdale. The market will be located on Mill Street and East Johnson Avenue near the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History and will run from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays and from 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays until October.
Selvey, 35, started selling produce on a very small scale in 2014 through Songbird Gardens, located at her family home in Springdale.
At the beginning, Selvey sold mostly to neighbors and friends who were interested in buying local, organically grown food, she said.
But as she became interested in taking her direct-to-consumer sales to another level, Selvey discovered a gap in the area’s farmers markets.
“What I found was there were massive farmers markets and then there were teeny-tiny farmers markets, and there was nothing really in the middle. Nothing for somebody who grew on the scale that I did,” Selvey said.
At the time, the farm was putting out about 700 pounds of food per year. However, Songbird Gardens has since increased inventory in preparation for the new market.
Selvey’s husband, James, now does most of the farming, in addition to handling entertainment for the Mill Street Market, as assistant manager.
Along with a few other recent additions to the fresh-food landscape in Northwest Arkansas, the market joins the ranks of established productions that have been around for decades, earned national awards and that boast thousands of visitors per week.
“We certainly have access to amazing farmers markets in Bentonville and Fayetteville, but not everybody can drive. And not everybody has the ability to get to those markets. So, starting a farmers market just seemed like a solution to a lot of different problems that I recognized were happening,” she said.
For Selvey, a lifelong Springdale resident, the timing was right.
“I thought about doing a farmers market in some way for years, but with the resurgence and the general excitement and growth in downtown Springdale, it just seemed to be the perfect time. All the pieces just sort of came together last year,” she said.
City leaders were enthusiastic about the prospect and suggested the Mill Street location, which Selvey said is “a beautiful spot.”
Market-goers will have a view of the Razorback Greenway paved trail, Spring Creek and eventually Walter Turnbow Park, which should be finished this summer, according to the city.
While planning the market, Selvey drew ideas from fellow farmers market organizers, in addition to operations like the Little Craft Show, founded in 2011 by her friends, Amber and Jonathan Perrodin.
“I took inspiration from how they communicate with their shoppers, how they get people excited about coming, and how they make it a community event rather than just a place to come and shop,” Selvey said.
Mill Street Market is on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and Selvey plans to livestream video during the market to showcase in real time the unique offerings of that day.
Although the market has not yet opened, she has already received a lot of positive feedback.
“People in Springdale are excited to have something that they’re proud of in downtown,” she said. Especially since it is happening now and not in the future.
“To be able to have something that develops so quickly — and we get to see the excitement without waiting years — I think that is why people are so excited,” she said. “You add that to just having strawberries that are accessible, that are grown in Springdale and sold in Springdale. That’s exciting.”
For the food, Selvey vets potential vendors herself and communicates directly with the farmers at least once a week.
“As a Master Gardener, growing things healthfully is very important to me,” Selvey said. She is also a freelance writer for a variety of garden product brands through Central Garden & Pet.
Of the Mill Street Market’s vendors, she said, “I feel comfortable feeding their food to my child without a second thought. We focus on safe growing processes, low-chemical and chemical-free. We will definitely always focus on having quality over quantity.”
To that end, Selvey does not plan on growing the Mill Street Market into a huge market, and might instead expand by establishing additional markets through her company, Songbird Markets LLC.
“Springdale is a very large town, size-wise,” she said. “I think there is definitely a need for a west-side market, as much as this downtown market.”
To Market, To Market
Mill Street Market is not the only farmers market that will debut this spring.
The city of Rogers and the nonprofit Main Street Rogers have partnered to create the Downtown Rogers Farmers Market. It will also open April 30 and will run from 7 a.m. to noon on Saturdays through October and from 4 to 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month, from May to August, at 101 S. Cherry St.
In addition to the new shopping destinations, NWA residents have access to a number of existing farmers markets across the region.
Rogers Farmers Market, bearing a similar name but no connection to the new market, has relocated from the town square to the Frisco Station Mall.
The year-round Fayetteville Farmers Market, founded in 1973 and known for its street performers, has been a crowd puller for several years.
During peak season, the outdoor market’s 70 vendor spaces are usually filled, and the market has seen up to 7,000 visitors for its Saturday event, said business coordinator Leann Halsey.
The Bentonville Farmers Market was founded in 1976 and is operated by the nonprofit Downtown Bentonville Inc. It has grown substantially in recent years, with 100 vendors lined up for 2016, said market manager Melanie Myers. Her estimate for previous years’ attendance is that it ranges from 2,000 people up to 10,000 during special events.
The Fayetteville market, which is vendor-operated, would not share financial specifics. However, the Bentonville market and those who worked it made $700,000 in 2015, and the goal is $1 million this year, Myers said.
In addition to the main event on the town square, Bentonville will host occasional pop-up markets in The Hub, where Downtown Bentonville’s office is located within the Arts District, Myers said. The dates and times will be announced on the market’s Facebook page.
The Springdale Farmers Market is starting its 19th season this spring and is relocating within the Jones Center for Families property, closer to the intersection of Arkansas Highway 265 and East Emma Avenue, according to its website.
A number of the region’s smaller towns have farmers markets. For example, the Siloam Springs Farmers Market, run by the nonprofit Main Street Siloam Springs, is unique in that it offers a year-round, online market.
Grist for the Mill
Farmers markets are on the rise nationwide.
In 2015, there were about 8,500 farmers markets in the U.S. That’s 38 percent more than there were in 2010 and four times as many as there were 20 years earlier in 1995, according to the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service. Because markets are not regulated, the data is based on voluntary reports from market organizers.
“It’s a really interesting time to be involved in this space, because if you look across the entire food value chain, they say local is king,” said Ronald Rainey, an economist at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extensive Service in Little Rock.
“Here in Arkansas, I’d estimate that local food systems have grown more than 100 percent in the last 10 years,” he said.
Consumers are gravitating toward local food for many reasons, including a perceived decrease of negative impact on the environment and support of the local economy.
However, perhaps the strongest factors feeding the local food movement are consumers’ desire to buy more nutritious foods like fresh produce and their desire for transparency, Rainey said.
“There are a number of people who are more concerned, relatively, about what they eat and where and how their food was produced,” he said. “Consumers are wanting to know that, and research shows they are willing to pay a premium for it.”
They’re also willing to pay for the farmers market experience as entertainment.
“It’s not just the food,” Rainey said. “One of the things that make local so popular is the social aspect, the experience of going to a farmers market and actually engaging with a producer that’s grown your tomatoes, and you can talk about what kinds of tomatoes they have and ‘maybe you want to try this heirloom variety.’”
Until customers are no longer willing to pay for that experience, the direct-to-consumer industry will continue to do well.
“Consumers vote with their dollars,” Rainey said. “Given the socioeconomic condition of Northwest Arkansas and the increased population, there’s probably potential for a few more markets to emerge across that region.”
In fact, research shows that the addition of new farmers markets does not have a significant negative impact on surrounding existing markets.
Michael Thomsen, professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, points to a USDA survey of farmers market managers. The 2014 study shows that 73 percent of managers did not view competition with nearby farmers markets as a serious threat to sales.
Local market organizers and agriculture economics experts seem to agree that an increase in the accessibility and visibility of fresh, local foods will only increase demand.
“It could almost be a virtuous cycle,” Thomsen said. “It all kind of builds the local food infrastructure. It’s not odd that there would be multiple grocery stores in the community. I don’t think it’s odd to have multiple farmers markets.”