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Farmers markets help local growers during recession

Demand for less expensive produce is helping growers.

By Adam Aasen | The Jacksonville News

Customers browse the produce stands at the Riverside Arts Market on Saturday. Once a week the vegetables and fruit are sold to eager buyers passing through the market. Fresh avocados from South Florida, vegetables from Rod Crawford Farms in Bradford County, and organic products from Magnolia Farms in Live Oak were being sold that day.

A few months ago the McElwees thought they might lose their farm.

With less than 20 acres of land, Darlene and Michael McElwee raise goats, chickens and grow vegetables at their Magnolia Farms in Live Oak about 80 miles from Jacksonville.

Sales have been slow and with the costs associated with farming, things were looking grim.

"I had so many punches to the gut last year that my stomach is sore," Darlene McElwee said. "But we're hanging in there and we're making it. Things are now looking better."

The McElwees' secret to saving their livelihood has been the local farmers markets in Jacksonville.

"Without the farmers markets here, we'd be gone," she said. "It has saved us."

Nationally the economic recession has been tough on farmers, even those who sell organic products. The values of farmlands and buildings have dropped considerably since 2008.

But small local farmers say they're doing just fine. They attribute their success to a combination of demand for locally grown food and the addition of new farmers markets.

This summer three new farmers markets opened in Jacksonville: the Riverside Arts Market, the Mandarin Farmers Market and the St. Johns Farmers Market at the St. Johns Town Center.

Riverside Arts Market director Tony Allegretti said most growers do pretty well each Saturday, with many selling out. He said he thinks more people are interested in buying produce at farmers markets, not just because of a desire to "go green," but also as a way to save money in the tough economy. Many products sell cheaper than at grocery stores because there's no middle man.

Jeff Collins, owner of Four Hearts Farm in Mershon, Ga., which is about 90 miles from Jacksonville, said he's seen some decrease in wholesale sales to stores, but he'd made up for it by selling directly to consumers.

Collins said he almost always sells out of blueberries at the Riverside Arts Market because he's able to charge less than retail prices.

"Selling at the local farmers markets is a great way to bring in extra income," he said. "It's really helping a lot in this down economy."

Sandra Williams, co-owner of Cognito Farms in Starke, said the Beaches Green Market in Jarboe Park has helped bring attention to her 200-acre farm. Through the market, she said she's built up a loyal customer base that regularly places orders for grass-fed beef and pastured poultry.

Brian Lapinski, co-owner of Down to Earth, a 1-acre farm on the Westside, said he's noticed no decrease in sales in the recession. He attributes it to a demand for healthier foods.

"We all have to eat, and many people have made the decision that eating well and eating organic food is important," he said. "They decide to not sacrifice that part of their life when money is tight."

Gretchen Ferrell, founder of the Beaches Local Food Network, which also runs the Beaches Green Market, said she thinks there's a huge demand on the First Coast for locally grown food, but unfortunately there are only so many local farms.

But starting a farm is far from a get-rich-quick scheme, Ferrell said. Not only are there slim profit margins, but there are plenty of barriers to entry including owning enough land, knowledge about farming and numerous regulations farmers have to follow.

Ferrell said her organization is encouraging more people to consider farming as a business.

"There's so much demand," she said. "We want to show people that this has potential and it's economically viable."

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