RICHMOND—There are about 200 farmers’ markets in Virginia. While most are seasonal, a few are able to stay open all year long. The biggest challenge doesn’t appear to be a lack of customers, but a shortage of permanent structures to house the markets.
"I know of 17 markets that have holiday markets; in other words, they’re open through December," said Leanne DuBois, Virginia Grown program manager for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "I only know of eight markets that are year-round, but many more are trying. Finding a permanent structure is a big help; most markets are still just portable tents."
DuBois said farmers markets in Alexandria, Arlington, Blacksburg, Dayton, Roanoke, The Plains and Virginia Beach currently operate year-round. The marketing advantages are obvious, she said.
"It becomes kind of a habit to shop there. And it’s much more than just food. It’s a sense of community and the whole spirit of trying to source food locally and support the local economy."
One operation that is trying to stay open through the winter is the South of the James Farmers’ Market in South Richmond. Manager Linda Williams said last year the market moved from a city park to an empty parking lot during the off-season.
"We have our crafters come out, we have our bakers come out, we still have our farmers with milk and cheese and that sort of thing," she said. "We offer the first vegetables in the spring. Some farmers are interested in extending the season, but not many of them have the resources to put in hoop houses or greenhouses."
A 2008 study by Virginia Cooperative Extension estimated farmers’ markets could contribute $1.65 billion to Virginia’s economy if every Virginian spent just $10 a week at a farmers’ market.
"Local food is fresher, and it usually tastes better," said Greg Hicks, vice president of communications for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. "And the growing number of markets across the state are evidence that there is significant consumer interest."
The growing acceptance of Electronic Benefit Transfer and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards at farmers’ markets is helping, DuBois said, with 23 markets now accepting these food assistance payments.
"Those markets have reported increased sales and a more diversified clientele."
Contact DuBois at 804-225-3663, Williams at 804-221-6667 or Norm Hyde, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146.