Alice Wootton serves as the volunteer Market Master for Orange County HomeGrown, whose mission is to “promote the small-town neighborly values, the natural forests, the cultural and recreational opportunities, and the healthy family farms that make Orange County, Indiana, an attractive place to live, work, play, raise a family, start a business, or retire.”
Alice knows that their two markets improve the quality of life for residents and also have a huge economic impact for local farmers. “We estimate that the 24 week market season is filling the pockets of our vendors with about $150,000, a lot of money for our citizens. Our county perennially sits in the top three positions of underserved counties in the state,” said Alice.
“Our farmers’ market has become the “front porch” for the immediate region each Saturday,” explained Alice. “Our farmers’ market (voted the #10 Most Loved Farmers Market in the Nation) resides in a small county (approximately 19,000 people). Our effort at community building is felt throughout the county, not just the town of Orleans, although certainly the impact within the small town of 2,300 has been profound. We were hoping for community impact but had no idea the impact would be so deep. All winter long people tell us they cannot wait for the winter to be over and the market to begin its season. This is where people in the county meet to talk with their friends and neighbors on a regular basis.”
Indiana Farm Bureau recognizes that farmers’ markets increase community vitality. They teamed up with the Indiana Cooperative Development Center, with funding provided by the Farmers Market Promotion Program grant through Ag Marketing Service (AMS), and Purdue Extension to host several “Bootcamps” for farmers’ market masters and vendors, which came about because of legislative pressures: In 2009 a bill was passed to allow home based vendors to sell at farmers markets and roadside stands. The law exempts certain products from having to be produced in a certified commercial kitchen. During 2010, budget pressures from the state forced a reduction in hours of inspection for state inspected meat processing facilities. This lead to a cut in personnel and therefore a cut in the number of hours any one of Indiana’s roughly 130 plants could process inspected products.
“Understanding the nuances of these two changes for farmers markets was the basis of the first bootcamp,” said Tiffany Obrecht, policy specialist on the Indiana Farm Bureau public policy team. “During the event, it became very apparent that both market masters and vendors didn’t understand all the rules and more importantly didn’t feel they were being applied fairly between county lines and county health inspectors.”
This led to the three partners developing a series of state-wide regional meetings that created facilitated discussion between county health inspectors, market masters and vendors.
“Creating dialogue puts us a long way ahead of the curve. As farmers markets continue to pop-up across Indiana, we are only going to see more scrutiny of the products sold there,” said Tiffany. “This means vendors need to understand how and why they need to prepare things in certain ways, and means that market masters need to understand what they need to be looking for even when the health inspector isn’t there.”
“With a growing market for knowing the farmer that grew your food, we are certainly going to continue and try to provide education, ideas and dialogue opportunities for our members. Member support is a goal for Farm Bureau, and this value-added avenue can be a lucrative one. We want to provide the information that makes these types of ventures profitable,” said Tiffany.
The community building power of a farmers’ market is exemplified by what happens in Orange County. Alice explained that the market is a perfect opportunity for organizations in town to offer their services, such as the Orange County Recycling Truck, Red Cross blood drives, La Leche League, 4-H Project demonstrations, Sycamore Land Trust, Farm to Fork Chef Demonstrations, Boy and Girl Scout fundraising, local Humane Society outreach, Master Gardener advice, Ham Radio and Fire Department demonstrations, free yoga classes, and food co-op information.
“The non-profit farmers market also donates to various causes,” explained Alice, “like free books to children and cheap books (for a dollar and we have 5,000!) to the general citizenry, to the three county libraries, to the Town of Orleans Congress Square Park, and to the school cheerleaders. We also welcome youth participation. We have several “Child Vendors” and “Rookie Vendors” who continue to be a part of our farmer market family. We also have kid friendly events at the farmers market, like horse & buggy rides, game day, art day, rock club, stargazing, scarecrow making, and zucchini 500 races.”
“When we began our non-profit, all volunteer, community service organization, many local citizens doubted our abilities to create anything in this county. In ten years, we have created a free summer music series, a million dollar natural food store Lost River Market & Deli, two farmers markets, and a yearly clean up of a section of Lost River, local stream monitoring, exterior county-related murals in each town, a now-defunct craft gallery, and a yearly holiday market. We have led by example. We have also provided our service workshops throughout the state concerning the development of farmers markets,” said Alice.
The Market Master Bootcamp series completed in April with a marketing “how-to” presented by long time farmers’ market vendors and masters. All told, nearly 425 people participated in the bootcamp series. The partner groups have reapplied for the grant monies and hope to provide another series of bootcamps next year.