Farmers markets in Arkansas have grown nearly threefold in less than a decade, driven by increasingly health- and community-conscious consumers.
Even the oldest farmers markets can attest to the surge in consumer interest. The four-decades-strong Fayetteville farmers market attracts an average 5,000 customers a week during the peak summer season at just its Saturday market, says Lori Boatright, the market’s coordinator. Altogether, 250,000 people annually shop the three-day-a-week downtown Fayetteville market and an additional Sunday market at the Botanical Gardens of the Ozarks.
The demand drives the market’s desire to expand; a winter market, evening hours and additional locations are under consideration.
“People changed from shopping the market as a novelty to serious shoppers that are making all their food choices based on what’s available at the market,” Boatright says. “In recent years, we see more young families and young business professionals shopping the market. They’re very educated about their food choices and making healthy choices for their families and their lifestyles.”
In 2004, 31 farmers markets existed in Arkansas, according to the Arkansas Agriculture Department. The state recorded 85 in 2012. Beyond the social experience, the forces driving the demand follow the nationwide trend: Buy fresh, nutritious food and buy it local.
“We have seen continuous growth throughout the years and a significant increase in the last five years as people become more educated about local food,” Boatright says. “They are making the market their primary grocery shopping location, which has increased vendor sales and the diversity of products coming to the market.”
The Fayetteville Farmers Market started in 1974 with 12 producers. In 2012, the market membership list included 120 farm and craft vendors from four counties in Northwest Arkansas, who sold fruits, vegetables, plants, meat, eggs, baked goods, jams, fine arts and crafts.
The downtown Fayetteville market celebrates its 40th season in 2013 with as much enthusiasm as ever. The market earned the America’s Favorite Farmers Market distinction for large U.S. markets from the American Farmland Trust in 2012. Fayetteville’s market location at the Botanical Gardens of the Ozarks won fourth place in the small market category.
More broadly, the interest in locally grown food symbolizes the importance of small-scale agriculture in Arkansas, Boatright says. The state long has been known for its successful rice crop and poultry production. Small-scale agriculture shows it can be a leader, too.