FORT THOMAS, Ky. - It's 6:30 p.m., and the Fort Thomas Farmers Market is scheduled to be open for another 20 minutes. The area should still be bustling with shoppers perusing fresh produce and homemade goods, but this evening, there's not a table a table in sight.
"Everybody's already gone," said vendor Sharon Wright. "It really slowed down after 5:00, so everyone packed up and left."
Sharon and her husband Emmett Wright are the two lone vendors left in the parking lot of the Midway District of Fort Thomas. A couple approaches inquiring about the farmers market. Sharon wryly responds, "You're looking at it."
Wright spends a great deal of time answering the couple's questions about humane care of their livestock and how the Wrights handle their produce. Satisfied with what they hear, the couple makes a purchase.
Small farms, big impact
Small farmers like the Wrights play an important role in the local economy. Whether it's produce and products at local farmers markets or restaurants and stores, Tri-state residents have come to depend on healthy, homegrown products to feed themselves and their families.
By definition, small farms bring in less than $250,000 in annual income. According to 2009 U.S. Census data, large farms, exceeding more than $500,000 in annual revenue, account for 73.5 percent of all farm income in the country--an interesting statistic considering that 88 percent of all farms in the U.S. are classified as small farms.
So how do small farmers make ends meet? According to the Wrights, staying solvent requires a certain amount of fortitude, especially during the busy summer months. For the last five years, the couple has farmed their 84-acre property in Morning View, Ky., named Breezy Acres.
According to Sharon, farming encompasses a little bit of everything including grass-fed beef, pork, chickens, laying hens, goats, vegetables, fruits and plants. The couple decided to start farming after retirement as a source of secondary income.
"We're trying to preserve our farm for our grandkids, so we're trying to build it up and get lots of animals and stuff on it for them," she explained.
The Wrights travel to five farmers markets different days of the week to sell their products. The itinerary includes Fort Thomas on Wednesdays and Fridays; UC Blue Ash on Thursdays; Independence on Saturdays; and Findlay Market on Sundays.
The Wrights also sell their products directly to stores and restaurants, a practice that came about primarily through word of mouth, Emmett explained. During the winter months, the couple's primary business is meat and egg farming, filling orders via email then delivering to a central location for customers to retrieve.
"So we're here all summer and we do the email stuff in the wintertime, so we do this all year round--except for the vegetables," Emmett explained.
Keeping it local
A number of local stores support to small farmers by buying and selling their products. At Madison's at Findlay Market, co-owner Mike Madison cheerfully greets customers by name as they enter the store.
Madison said his store buys and sells a wide variety of locally grown produce and products. He explained selling local produce gives the family business a competitive advantage because nutrients and taste are the highest quality just after harvest. For almost all items at Madison's, he can tell customers where they were grown and when they were harvested, information consumers are unlikely to find at a chain grocery store.
"We're trying to be transparent too about what we're selling and where it comes from," Madison said. "We're trying to promote the idea of buying local, knowing where your food comes from, supporting local farms, supporting small businesses and at the same time becoming more educated about what you eat and how it's grown."
Madison's not only features locally grown products, the family knows the challenges of farming firsthand. As the owners of a small farm in Adams County, the Madisons got their start selling produce at Findlay Market more than 15 years ago. Mike Madison explained the family's success allowed them to move into their current brick and mortar facility.
Madison gained valuable experience teaching farming techniques while in the Peace Corps in Panama. He explained the experience has empowered him to give advice to local farmers, especially those just starting out.
"There's a steep learning curve with agriculture. For some of these things that you grow you only get one chance a year to try it and if it doesn't work then you've got to wait until next year to try again."
Challenges for farmers
As experienced farmers, the Wrights find their biggest challenge to be escalating fuel prices, a two-fold expense for them. As the truck used to haul their food trailer is diesel, Emmett said traveling hundreds of miles to markets gets expensive.
The Wrights also got hit with an eye-opening cost increase when egg cartons jumped from 27 cents to 67 cents per unit. Emmett explained the Styrofoam containers are manufactured using petroleum, so the price increase was inevitable. The Wrights use both pulp and Styrofoam cartons, but in the State of Kentucky it's illegal to reuse egg containers because broken eggs contain bacteria.
"It seems this year like the economy is hurting," Emmett said. "Fuel prices are just unreal. That's what's killing us is our fuel prices. For three years our egg prices were the same, but we had to raise them because of the price of egg cartons."
The Wrights said that farmers markets have thrived in the past, but they've seen a sharp decline this year. For this reason, it makes better financial sense to sell directly to stores. Madison said local farmers love selling direct as they know exactly how much to produce without waste.
"The one thing about produce is you buy it today and it's worth x amount of dollars, but in a week or two weeks if you don't sell it the value can go to zero because it goes bad," he said. "So you've got to get rid of it and you've got to move it."
Back in Fort Thomas at the market, a young woman approaches looking to buy fresh, locally grown avocados. Sharon patiently explains avocados don't grow locally and she won't find them locally grown at any area farmers market. The couple marvels at how some people know so little about their food.
"People don't know where their food is grown and the growing seasons," says Emmett. "It's kind of amazing."
On the other hand, the Wrights explained, a large number of their customers know exactly what they're looking for in terms of meats, eggs and produce. Sharon said people want to know if the Wrights spray produce and what they use.
She says consumers also want to know their animals are free from antibiotics and steroids, and they've been ethically treated. She emphasizes all their livestock and animals enjoy free range on their farm, only herding the smaller ones in at night to protect them from predators.
"It's not necessary that they want organic," she explains. "People want to know where and how their food's grown and if the animals are ethically taken care of and have a good life. There are educated people out there who know exactly what they want."
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