Washington Evening Journal
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Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Jun 18, 2018

Folksy and friendly

Washington’s Farmers Market and its unique style continues to grow
Jun 08, 2018
Photo by: John Butters Fresh fruit and vegetables are the main draw at most farmers markets. Consumers enjoy the opportunity of meeting the people who grow their food. The farm-to-table movement has boosted the popularity of fresh air marketplaces.

By John Butters, The JOURNAL

 

The laid-back, folksy atmosphere is part of the ambience of Washington’s farmers market in Central Park.

But anyone who has tried to organize an event of more than three moving parts knows that good things don’t happen by chance. The success of Washington’s farmers market can be attributed to two forces at work: the farm-to-table movement and market master Bob Shepherd.

The farmers markets now common in town squares are the beneficiaries of a growing movement among consumers to source the food they purchase for their families. A farmers market, where the consumer meets the producer, makes that search easy. But it wasn’t always like that.

Farmers market master Bob Shepherd has been organizing the Washington square market since 1988. The 30-year success of the local market is largely due to his organizing skills. Not that he would take any credit for it.

“It’s the people that make the market. It’s the good vendors who try to reach for the best that make it successful,” he said.

Shepherd said The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided the initiative for this and other farmers markets when Iowa’s traditional corn and bean crops hit low prices in the 1980s.

“Corn and bean prices had gotten so low, that the USDA encouraged farmers to grow other crops,” he said.

While the producers could harvest other products, marketing their produce was a problem.

“They started by selling to the wholesalers, but the re-sellers controlled the distribution and the price,” he said.

The farmers markets, a farm-to-table concept ahead of its time, allowed the producer to control his market and put a fair price on his produce.

Today’s farm-to-table movement emphasizes food traceability by identifying the origin of the food. Consumers want to identify the source of the food they purchase, and if possible, the grower. The movement originates from a growing concern for food safety, freshness, food seasonality, and the small-farm economics that brings edibles to the consumer.

Washington’s farmers market has grown and profited from that trend.

“The customers can touch the growers,” Shepherd said. “It’s hand-to-hand.”

The Iowa Department of Agriculture continues to support the markets by offering programs like the Farmers Markets Nutrition Program (FMNP).

The program provides qualified users with coupons, which can be redeemed at participating farmers markets throughout Iowa for fresh fruits, vegetables and honey.

For a third year, seniors interested in participating in the nutrition program, were able to obtain vouchers at the Washington farmers market. The vouchers are also available to those who are active in the Women, Infants and Children’s nutrition program (WIC).

Jill Boileau, of Choices Drop-In, was at Thursday’s market to assist people in filling out applications for the vouchers.

The large crowds attending this year’s market is evidence that the farm-to-table movement has not lost any popularity here in America’s heartland. The vendors were kept busy as customers lined up to make a purchase. Shepherd said it isn’t only the food that draws a crowd.

“A large part of the attraction is the social aspect,” Shepherd said.

At Thursday’s market, the social contact was on display as families with small children mixed with seniors to the sound of music from the band shell. Benches near the fountain provided a resting place for those who wanted to watch the passing parade of people.

The atmosphere, relaxed and casual, definitely put the best of small town Iowa on display.

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