Farmers market in downtown Van Buren seeks to support farmers, boost tourism

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 463 views 

When Van Buren Original formed a few years ago to help make Van Buren’s downtown a viable center of Van Buren, one of its goals was to have a thriving farmers market.

There are many reasons organizers thought a farmers market was something downtown Van Buren needed including:
• A draw to tourists coming into the town on the Arkansas Missouri Railroad excursion trips that brings passengers from Springdale to Van Buren for three hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays;
• A venue for local farmers to sell their produce; and
• Another reason for area residents to visit downtown’s historic Main Street.

Research shows that farmers markets are important to a community foremost because they provide a cost-effective, retail sales opportunity for local food producers and help make farming profitable, according to an essay on the Farmers Market Coalition website.

“By making farming profitable, we preserve farmland and farmers and have encouraged a new generation to take-up farming,” the essay said.

Farmers markets are cost-effective for farmers and they provide fresh produce and products at reasonable rate to the consumer, the essay said. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service, direct benefit is provided to the producers, the consumers and the community.

“Small and mid-sized farmers use farmers’ markets as the first point of entry into a market for their products. Farmers’ markets allow producers to incubate their businesses, develop and test products with instant feedback and earn reliable income. Selling directly to consumers allows the farmer or artisan to capture the entire selling price without investing in infrastructure (store or farm stand), distribution or a middleman,” states information on the North Carolina Cooperative Extension website.

According to the USDA, farmers and ranchers receive 15 cents of every dollar consumers spend on their goods at traditional food outlets. At a farmers market, 100% of every dollar spent goes directly to the local farmer or artesian. In 2015, direct to consumer revenue at farmers markets totaled $711 million, the USDA states.

VBO wanted Van Buren to be a part of this.

“VBO decided that a farmers market would be a nice amenity, a nice attraction, as well as providing our local vendors, particularly growers, a venue to highlight what they do and provide fresh fruit and vegetables. It was a combination of goals we felt was worthy,” said Rusty Myers, VBO chairman.

Van Buren has had farmers market over the years. For a while there was one in a parking area on Main Street. There was one at the Van Buren Public Library. There was a prior one under the pavilion at Freedom Park, the new city park in Van Buren across the street from the train depot. But these farmers market were not bustling success, Myers said.

The VBO board knew the organization would have to invest in the project and promote it in order to make a new one a success, he said. Their first step was to hire a full-time manager, who would be an employee, not a volunteer. They hired Joy Holman, who spent the better part of a year researching successful markets across the United States. The organization also hired Williams/Crawford and Associates in Fort Smith for advertising and promotion of the new Main Street Farmers Market in Van Buren.

The market, which opened April 20, is open 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 27, with plans to open later in the summer on Wednesdays as well, Holman said. Located in Freedom Park, it is the sanctioned by the city. The weather the past several weeks has presented quite a few challenges to the young market, but Holman said feedback from vendors and customers has been good.

“I’m impressed with it. It seems to be going much better now than in the past,” said vendor Jean Carlton, who along with her sister are selling handmade jewelry at the Van Buren farmers market since it was located at the library. “We are getting a lot more customers. We’re getting more local people who are coming to (our booth), and we are getting a lot from the train.”

Being set up directly across the street from the train depot, the market is an easy destination for those visiting Van Buren from Northwest Arkansas via the Arkansas Missouri Railroad excursion train every Saturday.

“We are something small, they can easily carry back with them,” Carlton said.

Train visitors are a target market for the farmers market, Holman said, noting the passengers are in Van Buren for three hours and this gives them one more thing to do while visiting the city’s downtown.

Freedom Park is an ideal location for a farmers market because it includes covered pavilions with ceiling fans, electrical outlets for vendors and available water, Myers said. To make things more convenient for the customers, the farmers market has a booth that accepts credit or debit cards and allows for check out of all products purchased from the markets many different vendors. The farmers market, which is a nonprofit organization, has applied to be able to accept EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards for food and produce and should be able to so soon.

There are currently 24 vendors signed up to participate in the market. Vendors range from those offering fresh produce, to quail eggs and specialty jellies and jams, to fresh eggs, to goat milk soap and other products to hand-crafted wares such jewelry.

“I usually have 16. It’s a full house for one pavilion. When it grows, we’ll use both pavilions,” Holman said.

Vendors must be from the region. Organizers opted to expand the radius in order to attract more vendors, but all products must be local made or produced, Holman said. Arts and crafts must be truly handmade and artisan, she added, noting that a product cannot be something made from a kit from a local discount store. Vendors must submit an application, and Holman personally checks products before the application is approved. Membership in the farmers market is $35 annually with a $5 setup fee each week.

“We are trying to rebuild. We knew when we started that it wasn’t going to happen overnight,” Holman said, noting she is hoping to get more vendors selling fresh produce, though weather conditions have made fresh produce somewhat scarce.

Studies have shown that all farms, regardless of scale, are significantly more likely to survive if they have local food sales as a part of their marketing portfolio, according to the Farmers Market Coalition.

Prior to starting the market, organizers reached out to local farmers, the Farmers Coop in Van Buren and the Crawford County Extension office to garner feedback, support and enthusiasm for the market, Myers said.

“I think we have some excellent vendors, but I would like to see some bigger variety. We seem to have a lot of the same things,” said Polly Kelly, who sells homemade goat’s milk soap, lip balm, bath fizzies and other items, including a soap that helps repel mosquitoes and gnats. “I’m new to a farmers market. This is my first one to do, and I’ve only done it for six weeks. I’m doing very well with it. I’m pleased.”

Along with growing the number and variety of vendors for the farmers market, Holman said they were hoping to bring in food trucks and entertainment. One food truck was at the market early in the month offering biscuits and gravy, donuts and a donut Monte Cristo, Myers said.

“They were awesome,” he said.

Holman said she is trying to bring in a snow cone truck along with others. She is also hoping to add acoustic music to entertain customers. There are also plans to add workshops on various topics including gardening and raising rabbits, chickens and pigs among others. But with growth come areas of concern that will need to be corrected. One of those areas is parking.

“Parking is an issue,” Kelly said. “Really parking is horrendous. There are parking spaces between the pavilions, but they are very (tight) if you have a big a vehicle, it’s hard to maneuver. I don’t know what they will do about that.”

But while they work to grow and overcome the pains of doing so, vendors and organizers hope to keep being ambassadors of Van Buren.

“I enjoy meeting all the people and talking up Van Buren a little,” Kelly said.

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