Market Improves Physical, Economic Health

[imgbelt img=IMG_2777.JPG]Five previous attempts to create a farmers’ market in a small Eastern Kentucky county have failed. This time around, organizers are helping participants focus on income generation and health. 

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study identified southeast Kentucky as one of the worst areas for nutrition in the nation. It is also among the unhealthiest and poorest.

As the report became public knowledge, concerned citizens in Letcher County began to take action. 

Facing the waning coal economy with the increase in job loss and seeing the physical and emotional health of their community in a dire state, a group of small-time growers, artisans and small business owners met over a period of several months to form the Letcher County Farmer’s Market.  The market’s opening day on July 6 was a success.

Patrons have included residents from Letcher and surrounding counties, plus visitors passing through Whitesburg from places such as New York, Japan and Sweden. So the market is keeping local money local as well as bringing in revenue from outside.

Sasha Goble, a mother from adjoining Pike County, drove an hour from her home to purchase organically grown produce at the Letcher County market.

“I drove all the way to the Letcher County Farmers’ Market from Pikeville because I heard of all the good, healthy, wholesome, organically grown produce that would be there,” she said. “I’m trying my best to feed my family fresh, pesticide-free, antibiotic- and hormone-free foods. I’m also trying my best to reduce the number of chemical laden products in my home.”

The market may be a small start, but the organizers felt that beginning somewhere was better than not beginning at all.

[imgcontainer left] [img:IMG_2775.JPG] [source]Photo by Kelli B. Haywood

Canopies line the edge of a parking lot at the market in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Volunteers help set up the stands, giving sellers an extra hand.

Getting the new market off the ground was not easy. Other groups had tried and failed to launch farmers markets in Letcher County in the past.

“There have been five attempts in the past,” West said. “In talking with people that were involved with those attempts, there was a lack of planning and direction. One market included resellers of produce, which actually goes against the local farmers’ market vision. This is discouraging to local growers who have worked hard to bring their harvest to market. It also takes away many of the advantages that a local market has to offer. 

“The other problem was not getting growers involved from the onset and sharing the vision of the market with them,” West said. But this time around was different, West said, because “from the beginning, [we] compelled growers to think like a farmer that is going to have some income from their efforts.”

“Another key element not included in the past was the marketing,” he said.  “This time, people were much more aware of it.” 

Every Saturday through October from 9 a.m. to -1 p.m., growers, artisans (crafts, handmade items, and canned goods), fine artists, musicians and volunteers have agreed to set up rain or shine in the Mountain Heritage Village parking lot off Main Street in Whitesburg.  They are assisted by volunteers, organized by Nathan Hall, who help get the tents, tables and other equipment set up. Many of the growers and artisans have planned their production year to meet the demand of the farmer’s market as their primary goal. 

The Letcher County Farmer’s Market offers uniquely southeastern Kentucky fare– including produce, music and arts items. It is also a venue to introduce the public to things new and interesting, like organic red Russian kale, new culinary herbs and organic and wild-crafted herbal bath and body products.

One of the organizations that supported the effort was Letcher County’s Chapter of Grow Appalachia.  Grow Appalachia is a project of Berea College in Kentucky that teaches Appalachian people to grow their own food to feed themselves.

“A definite goal of Grow Appalachia is to support individuals or families in generating income from farming,” said Valerie Horn, coordinator of Letcher County’s Grow Appalachia program, based at the Cowan Community Center.

Horn said Grow Appalachia and the Letcher County Extension Office helped by providing basic equipment like tents, tables and certified scales to weigh produce. They also provided manpower to set up and break down the market each Saturday, lessening the burden on the growers to attend to these things. 

Other parts of the success have to do with timing, she said. The tough economic conditions in Letcher County give participants a sense of urgency. “We must make it work, and dedicated individuals are making a concentrated effort to see that it is successful,” Horn said. “Perhaps our community realizes that we are the change that needs to happen for both our health and our quality of life. And the farmer’s market enhances each of these. There seems to be almost an underlying desperation in our efforts to be successful, to provide not only healthy food choices for the community but economic opportunity as well.”

diabetes and obesity – two major health problems in the coalfields. Eliminating the need for packaging and transporting foods reduces exposure to BPA.

Elizabeth Crowe, director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, says farmers markets are a great way to reduce risk to Kentucky families. “Eating fresh, local foods as often as possible is something that many of us can do now to reduce our family’s exposure to BPA,” she said. “It has the added bonus of supporting farmers and a stronger local food economy.”

Most important, this effort at renewal is being led by community members hoping to foster positive change.  David Fisher, a member of the Cowan Community Center’s Grow Appalachia Project who is selling produce at the market, he likes knowing he’s part of something that has a direct benefit to the community.

“A lot of the things I did in the oil field [where he previously worked], it had an impact,” Fisher said in an interview with WMMT-FM radio in Whitesburg. “But I never got to see it. I never saw any direct correlation with what I was doing, with how it affected my neighbors or the community. But with this, however, I see the direct effect.” 

During hard economic times, many rural residents face tough choices: Do I stick it out for the long haul, or do I move on down the line?  For one person, the answer may be to leave. But in Letcher County, this group of residents is giving the alternative a try.  They have chosen to see if they can create something out of nothing. 

More growers come to the market every week, and more of the community is put in touch with the source of their food and the possibility for a better quality of life. 

A message from the Rural Assembly

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