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.
Ben West noticed a change in the landscape around his home in Letcher County, Kentucky. In his opinion, it wasn’t a change for the better. So he and others in his community decided to do something about it.
“I’ve wanted to see something in agricultural efforts return to our area for a long time,” said West, a disc jockey and father. “I drive by large fields that I remember being covered in corn when I was younger. But now they are just grown up with grass and weeds.”
Last month, the efforts of West and others bore fruit with the opening of the Letcher County Farmer’s Market.
The goal of the project is to create access to local, healthy food by promoting traditional foodways. And organizers want it to be a small boost their community’s declining economy.
It’s ironic that a rural area like Eastern Kentucky would need some encouragement to improve their local food supply. When we think of rural America, many of us see a romanticized lifestyle of family farms, home-cooked meals, clean water and the kind of hard work that is good for the bones. But rural Americans’ food options may not be as healthy as we would like to believe.
The USDA defines a “food desert” as areas without ready access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Food deserts can result from lack of retail options, income or transportation. Those living in food deserts are more likely to be rural than those who do not.
Even when a region is not a food desert, rural dwellers often find that access to healthier, fresh food is limited. Prices for fresh food may be higher than in metropolitan areas, and rural areas are farther from food hubs. So more people eat lower-cost canned or pre-packaged foods, which aren’t as healthy as fresh food. That, in turn, affects the health of the community.
Residents of Letcher County became more aware of this health disparity with the release of a report by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. That 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.
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.”
As southeastern Kentuckians look to improve the health of their communities, their efforts are getting support from statewide organizations such as the Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF). KEF’s Kentucky Safe Foods Project promotes the farmer’s market model as a prime way to achieve the biggest benefit for the community.
Eating locally produced food also reduces consumer’s exposure to potentially harmful chemicals like Bisphenol-A (BPA) that are in lower-cost food packaging. BPA, found in hard plastic and some metal containers, is a synthetic that mimics estrogen. The chemical can disrupt metabolic processes and has been linked to increased risk for 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.