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Farmers markets increasing in state

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Tim Forren cracks open a chicken egg, he wants to see a golden yolk, not what he calls the wimpy, yellow color he sees in store-bought eggs.

That's why Forren said he enjoys eating eggs from free-range chickens. He found some from a Roane County vendor at last weekend's opening of the West Side Farmers Market in Charleston, said Forren, board president of the West Side Farmers Market.

The market on the corner of Washington and Beatrice streets in Charleston is one of nearly 80 farmers markets in the state -- a number that has tripled in the last 10 years, said Larry Lower, president of the West Virginia Farmers Market Association.

About one-third of the markets in the state are no more than three years old, Lower said.

Farmers markets are also growing nationally, There were 7,175 farmers market in the U.S. in 2011 compared to 6,132 in 2010, a 17 percent increase, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1994, when the USDA began publishing the National Directory of Farmers there were only 1,755 markets listed.

"Ultimately I think people like markets because they can talk to the farmer, know if they use chemicals and put a face to their source of local fresh food," said Lower, president of the Berkeley Springs Farmers Market. "With this whole green movement, people wanted healthy food by supporting local communities so people jumped on the bandwagon."

He believes West Virginians do want to eat healthy, despite the state's ranking as the second-most obese state in the nation, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly one of out every three state resident is obese, according to the CDC.

"We have a need for farmers markets because people are really trying to learn how to eat healthy. The way to eat healthy, naturally, is fruits and vegetables," said Forren, who owns Forren Soil on Charleston's West Side. "If we can educate people to eat healthy, maybe we can lose a little weight. People are realizing that they can eat healthy and they like the idea of doing it with farmers in the state."

The local food movement reflects an increasing interest by consumers in supporting local farmers and in better understanding the origin of their food, according to Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues, a report from the USDA's Economic Research Service.

Buying food at farmers markets cuts out the "middle man, which keeps the dollars circulating in the community," Lower said. Transportation costs and packaging are also reduced.

The environmental movement encourages people to consider geographic dimensions in their food choices, the ERS report stated. Enhancing access to safe, healthy, and culturally appropriate food for all consumers is the goal of the community food-security movement, according to the ERS report.

"Over the past 10 years, there have been a lot of food scares because of contamination and agricultural activities when they ship across the U.S.," Lower said. "What happens when something is contaminated in California and it is suddenly shipped all across the U.S. has caused a lot of people to be concerned about where their food comes from."

That's why the WVFMA, in partnership with the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition and the WV Community Development Hub, is launching a pilot program to all farmers markets in the state. The two-year program will provide training and networking opportunities as well as business planning support to 10 selected markets, Lower said. Market managers will work with the 10 chosen markets to find out what is and isn't working, he said.

The program is free for the farmers markets thanks to an $80,000 grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

"We need to find a more substantial way for communities who want to set up markets to improve their methods. That's why we started this program," Lower said. "The ultimate goal is to support and enhance the local food production and marketing in West Virginia."

All farmers markets are different, he said. Some, like the West Side Farmers Market, feature numerous canopies spread across a parking lot where farmers sell their fruits, vegetables, eggs, meats, cheeses and salsas. The "luxury markets," as Lower called them, have buildings so that people can buy local even when weather conditions are harsh (like Charleston's Capitol Market).

Whatever the size of the market, the goal of the program is to understand how the community has organized around making the market successful, said Savannah Lyons, one of nine WVFMA board of directors members.

"We designed this program to look at the spread of different levels of development that markets have; from the small tailgate markets to the larger city markets that shut down a city block," Lyons said.

The program will also create economic opportunities for farmers and vendors, she said.

"People think of farmers markets as not being serious business enterprises because they're often community driven -- and they don't run themselves as a business -- but they have the potential to serve as business incubators, and they do," Lyons said.

The deadline to apply for the program is May 10. To find out more information about the market program or to learn more about farmers markets in the state, call Lower at 304-258-3815 or visit www.wvfarmers.org. The 10 selected farmers markets will be announced later this month.

To find a farmers market near you, visit http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113


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