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Economy & Business

Farmers' markets provide hope for small farms

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 9, 2012 - Farmers’ markets are certainly not new to the St. Louis area, the Soulard Market has been around since 1779, according to its website. However, smaller grower-only markets have been popping up in recent years around the area providing fresh organic food grown by local farmers. These markets not only provide healthy food, they present a community bonding experience and even help the local economy.  Despite the growth, local farmers struggle to compete with grocery stores and large corporate farms.

The St. Louis area is home to approximately 17 farmers' markets. These markets serve a number of individuals and provide a place for local farmers to sell their produce. Markets such as those in Clayton and at the Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood, which are both grower-only, have about 30 vendors that come to the market each week.

Unlike bigger markets such as Soulard or Kirkwood, many smaller markets prohibit reselling produce and require that vendors sell produce they have grown themselves.

Brian DeSmet, market manager at Schlafly, said he doesn't really consider Soulard and Kirkwood to be real farmers’ markets. He said the problem with Soulard is the real local farmers who are there get lost in a sea of vendors who buy their produce at produce row, and it is hard for shoppers to differentiate local farmers from vendors reselling produce.

The Clayton and Schlafly farmers' markets do not require a specific farming method. DeSmet said the farming practices of vendors at the Schlafly market vary. Some, he said, are strictly organic. Some are certified organic, and some farmers use other techniques such as biodynamic farming, or plasticulture.

Biodynamic farming, according to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, is a "spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition." Biodynamic farming integrates farm animals, crop cultivation and care of the land.

Plasticulture involves using plastic materials to prevent insects and weed growth. The plastic covering also works to reduce water loss and keep the soil cool.

Deborah Henderson of Clayton said her market does not require vendors to be organic, but they are strongly encouraged to use organic methods. DeSmet said when he is looking for new vendors, he looks for sustainable farmers who use mostly organic methods. Organic farming does not use pesticides or chemical fertilizers. However, DeSmet said some vendors do spray chemicals on tree fruits, because they are hard to grow without it.

Jessica Yoches, was at the information tent at the farmers' market in Tower Grove Park, says she shops there because she is getting the freshest, best quality food that you don’t find in grocery stores.

Henderson and DeSmet also say the farmers' markets provide nutritional benefits to people in the community. Henderson said the food is fresher and has more nutrition.

DeSmet said the food is much better when it is not "designed," and the product is better than what is sold at grocery stores. At the markets, buyers know what is in the food and how it is grown.

A matter of money

Despite the numerous purported health benefits from eating organic, many people say they are not willing to pay the higher price.

Sam Ross, who owns Windy Lake Farm in De Soto, said he believes the hardest part of running a farm is the cost. Windy Lake is a natural farm, meaning the animal feed has no fillers, such as sand, which he says is sometimes the case in organic food. Ross said organic and natural famers require more manpower and had higher operating costs, but people are not always willing to pay the price.

Chris Goden, a market shopper who is also involved at Tower Grove, said he does not mind paying the extra cost because it goes directly to the farmers and supports their job. He added that people see a value to the products sold at the markets.

"The prices are what they are," he said. Yoches agrees with Goden, saying said she believes the prices are reasonable.

Bobbi Sandwisch, of Live Springs Farm in Carrollton, Ill., said it is important for consumers to be educated about what they are buying. She said when a person buys from a farmer at a market the full price goes to the farmer, unlike in a grocery store. The price reflects the cost of production plus a little added on for a profit.

Henderson says that, in the long run, the economy is helped more when people shop at farmers' markets because those farmers support local businesses and bring new businesses to the area. Eighty cents of every dollar spent at the markets is re-spent in the economy by the farmers, she said.

Henderson added that, for many farmers at the Clayton market, farming is their livelihood. Many vendors sell their products at other markets around the St. Louis area to support their small farms. DeSmet said some farmers at the Schlafly market have other jobs on the side to support themselves. Produce is a hard way to make a living, he said, noting that one vendor at the Schlafly market has three jobs.

Beyond health and economic benefits, many market shoppers enjoy their weekly grocery shopping because they have become friends with other shoppers and the farmers.

Henderson said the markets provide a "backyard atmosphere" in a community-meeting place centered on food.

DeSmet agrees, and said it is a good atmosphere where people can put aside their differences because they have a common interest in the market.

Chris Goden, who was at the Tower Grove information booth, said he shops at farmers' markets because there is a sense of true community. He said many shoppers, including him, have loyal relationships with the farmers.

Growing younger, small-farm farmers

In spite of a growth of new markets, the small-farming profession is in decline. Molly Rockamann founder of EarthDance Farm in Ferguson, said the average age of a farmer is 57, and many of them are beginning to retire.

When she founded EarthDance in 2008, Rockamann wanted to train young people to run an organic farm.

"We need more active young farmers," Rockamann said.

EarthDance has 24 new apprentices in the 2012 growing season and eight returning apprentices. Through the program, the students are taught organic farming techniques so they may learn to farm as a career.

“The farm is an outdoor classroom to educate our next generation of farmers,” Rockamann said.

Until recently, EarthDance had no land security. The land on which they farmed was leased, and Rockamann said she did not know whether she would have the land each year. This prevented the farmers from planting for the future or making long term plans. 

On May 24, EarthDance was able to purchase the 13.93-acre farm and has begun to plan long-term improvement projects.

DeSmet said he hopes to educate people about farming practices and to increase traffic to the farmers' markets in St. Louis, specifically the Schlafly market, which would help to support the local growing system and small farms in the area.

“The future looks bright for this farm,” Rockamann said about the EarthDance.

With the help of farmers’ markets, the future may be bright for many more farms.

Josie Butler is a Beacon intern.

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