USDA Under-Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs Ed Avalos launched National Farmers’ Market Week from Vienna’s Church Street farmers’ market on Aug. 4. He toured the market and spoke to vendors, sampling products and trying not to bake while wearing a long-sleeved shirt and sports jacket. He achieved pretty much all he set out to do except for the baking in the sun part.
“This is a great market,” said Avalos. “Coming in, I saw the tents and a balloon man who had children waiting in line for him.
“It makes you feel good when you walk in and everyone is smiling.”
Avalos sat down with the Connection to talk about the administration’s goals to ensure that rural America lives the American dream.
Farmers’ markets are part of America’s culture, said Avalos, appointed to his position by President Obama in 2009. Avalos’s department chose Vienna’s market and contacted Sarah Jane Brady, market-master, representing the Optimist Club of Greater Vienna who operates the market from May through October. The Vienna market is one of the top four Virginia farmers’ markets in American Heartland polls and is run by a community nonprofit organization.
A priority of the Obama administration is to support rural America and stimulate rural economies. “Farmers’ markets play a very important role in that mission,” Avalos said. “We want to create opportunities to keep agricultural land in production and be able to sell what farmers grow directly to consumers.
“The other side is that farmers’ markets provide opportunities to local communities to meet with local farmers who produce what they sell.
“It’s a win-win for the rural communities and local communities.”
Avalos notes that farmers’ markets are also social events, something he observed while at the Vienna market. “Once you become a ‘regular,’ you meet up with a network of friends and neighbors, even the farmers selling their products.”
In 2011, over 7,800 farmers’ markets dotted the landscape nationwide. Contrast that number to that of 20 years ago when there were only about 1,500 farmers’ markets across the country. Farmers’ markets continue to grow.
Virginia is ranked ninth in the nation, with 227 farmers’ markets today. Avalos said that number is expected to grow in the coming years.
The Vienna farmers’ market, operated by the Optimist Club of Greater Vienna, has applied to USDA to accept payments through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP]. Many farmers’ markets throughout the country participate in the program and accept SNAP debit cards. To off-set the frequently higher prices at fresh markets, most of those participating offer bonus “cashback” or other incentives to be used at the participating market. Vienna Farmers’ Market co-market master Sarah Jane Brady is pursuing SNAP participation.
Avalos is no Johnny-come-lately to agriculture. He grew up in New Mexico on his family’s farm, and spent 30 years with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, focusing on agriculture and livestock. He says he feels “comfortable” coming to farmers’ markets. He respects people who work the land and raise livestock, acknowledging that there frequently is a disconnect between what we eat and our knowledge of where our food comes from.
One of the things that Avalos noticed in Virginia farmers’ markets is an increasing share of diverse members. About one-quarter to one-third are Hispanic, Avalos said.
“This tells me that agriculture is starting to experience a change in demographics,” said Avalos. “Some of these farmers’ parents came over as migrant workers. Now, they—the children—are the farmers and they’re achieving the American Dream.”
For more details on the Vienna Farmers’ Market, see http://viennafarmersmarket.com/. To learn more about farmers’ markets and the nutrition assistance program, go to http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/ebt/fm.htm.