The question at a Feb. 22 meeting the Extension Office put together was, Is there enough interest to start a farmers market in Fulton County?
"I'm interested in seeing one get started," Ralph Moore said. Moore belongs to the Master Gardener program, and a number of Master Gardeners were in the audience to learn more about what it takes to establish a farmer's market.
"Farmer's markets are like farmers. They are all different. They are all independent. They reflect the nature of the community," Dr. Ron Rainey, an Extension Service economist who specializes in farmer's market development, said.
According to Rainey, the number of farmer's markets in Arkansas has exploded in recent years. From about 70 in 2005 to more than 100 today - and the number continues to grow.
Rainey seconded Runsick's assertion that the growth is influenced by more people wanting fresh, locally grown foods. But he added farmer's markets are about more than just food.
"A market itself is a collection of buyers and sellers," Rainey told the audience, "but think about the interaction and community experience - including entertainment - that a market will provide for the area."
While farmer's markets begin with people selling garden fresh vegetables and fruits, most farmer's markets also attract vendors who sell prepared foods, crafts and health related products. They also often include performing musicians, who add to the atmosphere.
Besides health laws and zoning codes in some areas, Rainey said there is not a set of state laws that specifically govern farmer's markets. The lack of government red tape is a plus, but Rainey said, for a market to succeed, there has to be a group of citizens willing to organize and run it.
"People are always calling and saying to me, 'What are the rules (for farmer's markets)?' I always say, 'There are no rules,' but you have to have rules, so a committee of people is needed to establish policies for consistency, and help run it," Rainey said.
One thing hailed as welcome government interference is the Arkansas Cottage Food law, passed by the 2011 General Assembly.
The bill, which was sponsored by Fulton County State Representative Lori Benedict, allows more people to make certain food products, like jams and jellies, in their homes to be sold to the public. Loosening the requirement that all prepared foods have to be made in a commercial kitchen, which has been certified and inspected by the health department, is seen as creating new farmer's market vendors.
According to Rainey, correctly labeled homemade products covered by the Cottage Food law, and whole fruits and vegetables from farms and gardens, can be sold without question at farmers's markets, and are exempt from sales tax.
However, people who want to make fresh salads or sandwiches, or sell sausage and other prepared foods must have permits and licenses, usually issued by the state health department.
Rainey said establishing a farmer's market begins with choosing a location and setting the ground rules for who can sell at the market, and what they can sell. One big issue is, will just Fulton County grown produce be sold by local farmers, or will re-sellers who buy produce from wholesalers be allowed?
"Involve farmers from the start, because you will really need their buy-in and support to start it," Rainey advised.
One good sign was, most of the 35 people in attendance were farmers or gardeners, including seven people from the Amish community.
If the decision to open a farmer's market is made, where it will be held will be the next challenge.
"Where is a location that is very visible?" Is it very convenient for people to come in and park and exit safely?" Rainey asked. "Is it in an area where you can do some beautification - some aesthetics to make it very pleasing, a sociable, happy experience?"
"I think this is a wonderful turnout," Extension Family and Consumer Science Agent MaLinda Gray told the crowd, as she passed around a sign-up sheet as the meeting ended. "It shows interest in Fulton County. What we are really looking for now is some people to serve on the committee and give us your input, and to help
Later, Gray said most of the people in attendance signed up to attend a second farmer's market discussion meeting, set for Monday, March 5, from noon to one at the Hickinbotham-Miller exhibit building at the fairgrounds.
Warren Newman, who grows corn, watermelons and other produce in Union, found the meeting interesting, but has mixed feelings on getting involved.
"I would like to sell produce at a farmer's market, without it getting too complicated without a lot of rules and laws," Newman said.
Vernon Borntrager, an Amish resident who operates a produce stand on his property, said he would not see a farmer's market as competition.
"I have a lot of regular customers who come to the farm," Borntrager said, "but I also sell produce on the square when I have a surplus. I would be willing to come to a farmers market if there was a good location."
Borntrager and others raised the question of how a farmer's market would affect produce sales on the square. Some feel selling on the square should be shut down, while others believe sales on the square should continue, since a farmer's market would probably operate, at least initially, for just one or two days a week.
Some in the crowd mentioned how the Mountain Home farmer's market has grown into an event that draws people from a wide area, because of the large variety of products that are sold there.
Gray said the extension service believes farmer's markets have a positive economic impact on a community.
"We're concerned about education, but also commerce and economic development," Gray said. "I think that the locally grown aspect of the farmer's market is part of supporting your local economy. That is a lot of my interest - develop some good strong commercial and economic aspects from the farmer's market."
Gray hopes that the Feb. 20 meeting has the discussion started, and more people will show up at the next meeting, March 5 at noon at the fairgrounds, to get involved.