Farmers Markets: A growing commodity

Farm Forum

Seven years ago, Pierre didn’t have a single place where people could purchase locally grown produce. Now it has two.

This is a sign of the growth in farmers markets throughout the state. Chase McGrath, agriculture development representative for South Dakota, said there are roughly 60 farmers markets in the state, and based on a 2014 study, the farmers markets did roughly $1.3 million of business in 2013.

He doesn’t have exact figures, and said growth has leveled off in recent years. He added that sometimes farmers markets close down, while new ones start up. But the number is increasing.

“There’s definitely growth year after year. I know there’s a new one that just started in Sioux Falls. That makes four total, just in Sioux Falls,” he said.

The size of the markets varies, depending not only on the size of the town but also the time of year, which affects what crops are available. A smaller farmers market might have three or four vendors, while the larger markets may have 12 to 15, McGrath said.

McGrath found it encouraging that farmers markets are coming to smaller population centers.

“Wagner has a very vibrant market. There’s one in Murdo. Midland has a small market, Chamberlain. It’s a trend that’s going to continue to grow statewide,” he said.

And as the number of farmers markets increase, having a place to sell produce will encourage even more growers to get into the business, he said.

McGrath said that farmers markets got their start in South Dakota in the late 1980s. At the time, it was harder to make a living in farming, and both the state and farmers began looking into direct marketing to consumers.

That benefits both buyers and sellers. By cutting out the middle man, growers can get a better price for their crops.

“You really don’t need a lot of land. Generally, they’re such high-value crops, you carve out an acre or two and have a lot of success. You don’t need 2,000 acres,” McGrath said.

Consumers benefit, too.

“A lot of people like to know – especially more and more, there’s a growing interest in knowing where their food comes from, how it’s raised, exactly who raised it,” McGrath said.

Plus, food from the farmers market tastes better.

“For a lot of people, it’s also the fact that it’s fresh. It’s usually picked maybe the day before, or sometimes that very day,” he said.

Another benefit – for both sides – is that people who shop at farmers markets tend to come back week after week. So the buyers and sellers get to know each other in a friendly atmosphere.

“It’s more than just a transaction,” he said.

Lindy Geraets, who runs the Capital City Farmers Market downtown, agreed. She began the market seven years ago because she saw a need. She lived in San Diego for three years and became accustomed to farmers markets.

“I missed farmers markets a lot. I missed just the social aspect of it. What I loved, in San Diego, especially, was I could go down to the women that were selling the tamales and ask about their products. Or the flowers and where they came from,” she said.

Geraets has tried to re-create that atmosphere here. From the beginning, the Capital City Farmers Market has been in downtown Pierre, and the merchants are supportive. People who come to the farmers market also do additional shopping in the downtown core.

“This is our seventh year,” she said. “We’ve become a family with downtown, and that has been very nice. Being downtown and supported by downtown is huge.”

Also, families come with their children, and often the parents turn the day into a teaching moment, where kids can learn about vegetables and farms.

Geraets said there are several benefits to coming to the farmers market. All farms are within 200 miles of Pierre, which means the produce is fresh. The cabbages sold at the market this past weekend traveled 20 miles to get there – unlike the 2,000-mile voyage a supermarket cabbage may face.

What’s more, customers get to meet the people behind the produce.

“Anyone that comes down, they can ask any of us, ’cause we make everything that we sell. Make or grow. So we can tell you everything that’s in our product,” she said. “A lot of the customers find benefits in that.”

Terry Lehamkuhl, who runs the Country Farmers Market at the Pierre Mall, said there’s a lot of interest in locally grown produce. Her stand ran out of veggies in the three hours she was there.

That, she says, is fairly typical – five 60-gallon containers worth of produce, and it vanishes quickly.

“So it’s been great,” she said.

The farmers market has four dedicated vendors who come every week. In addition, a woman from Wonderment Gardens travels from Hot Springs to Pierre to sells her herbal products roughly once a month, Lehamkuhl said.

Lehamkuhl did not have figures for overall sales among the vendors, but she did say it was “pretty significant.”

“Even our wool people there, that raise their own wool,” she said. “They’re already selling stuff for Christmas presents and taking special orders.”