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Farmers Markets as Small Business Incubators

Friday Farmers Market at the USDA.

Friday Farmers Market at the USDA.

Last Sunday, CBS News featured USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan and discussed how farmers markets are part of a fundamental shift in the way people access their food and interact with their community.  And, as the story notes, “… [f]armers markets and other forms of selling straight to customers are helping to keep farmers in business,” which is why those of us at the Agriculture Marketing Service were excited to report that there are now 6,100-plus farmers markets, recognizing that these markets provide jobs and economic growth opportunities for their producers.

Farmers markets are a unique business structure: lower overhead costs and direct and valued contact with their customer base make for innovative and responsive farmers that can experiment with offering new items more easily.  If a producer is able to find the right product mix for consumer demand, they can develop a sound business, create new jobs, and grow successfully.

Consider the story of Darn Hot Peppers in Cobden, Illinois.  The son of farm working parents, Gerardo “Jerry” Jimenez and his wife Carol manage a value-added business featuring over 25 varieties of salsas, jams, jellies, spices and rubs.  However, the company started when Gerardo began growing and selling unprocessed peppers at farmers markets near his farm.  After a few years, and useful customer feedback, Gerardo and his family eventually decided to turn their fresh peppers into additional lines of value-added products. Today, Darn Hot Peppers products are still available at several southern Illinois farmers markets, and also through local retail stores and by internet mail order.  Darn Hot Peppers’ value-added products easily account for 95% of their business, which itself has grown over 300% in the last five years and created five jobs along the way.

Keith Cooper of Sweet Briar Farms in Eugene, Oregon started out selling natural and humanely-raised pork cuts at the Eugene and Portland farmers markets in 2000. Since then he has expanded the company’s offerings to include value-added products like bacon and sausage and more recently, adding a line of rubs, spices and sauce mixes.  Today, Sweet Briar has a seasonal staff of 25 and is one of the biggest providers of naturally raised pork in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  Cooper credits the company’s ability to experiment with new products in their local farmers markets as one of the leading reasons for their success.

From a national perspective, farmers markets provide thousands of economic opportunities for other small and midsize producers to grow local food and develop business ventures rooted in their local communities.   light of this, USDA’s Risk Management Agency has supported a project at the Wallace Center at Winrock International to study how farmers markets helped Darn Hot Peppers, Sweet Briar Farms and other small food businesses get their start.

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