Farmers market roundtable provides networking and education

Alaska not only presents farmers with different growing conditions than the Lower 48, but different market conditions as well. A workshop held on Wednesday at Kenai’s Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association building invited prospective farmers on the Kenai Peninsula to learn about both.

Organizer Heidi Chay of the Kenai Soil and Water Conservation District said that the workshop, entitled “Scaling Up: Ready for the Farmer’s Market,” was aimed at hobbyists looking to become business owners.

“What we’re seeing is that all of the markets could use more vendors, and that there’s a lot of demand for local food,” Chay said. “The thrust of this event is to inspire those successful gardeners and high tunnel growers who are already scaling up and giving away food to their friends and family to think about becoming vendors.”

Workshop attendee Chelsea Holsonbeke is one such successful grower.

“We put in our own home-built high tunnel last year, and we did a bunch of preliminary experiments just to see what we could grow really well, and we were really successful, grew way more than we could eat, and decided that this year we’re going to look into making a business, going to farmer’s markets,” Holsonbeke said.

Although Holsonbeke has grown vegetables for personal use, she’s never grown commercially.

“We’ll see how this year goes, and if it’s really successful we’ll consider expanding,” Holsonbeke said. “Last year it was a hobby. This year it’s going to be serious.”

Chay encouraged gardeners like Holsonbeke by bringing together seven speakers, who presented on subjects ranging from practicalities like signage and booth display to food safety, how to use food assistance programs like SNAP and EBT, and the results of a 2013-2014 survey of Farmer’s Markets.

In addition to farmers looking to get into markets, the workshop also attracted market managers seeking farmers. Annette Villa organizes a Wednesday market that will be held this summer in Soldotna Creek Park.

“It’s not exclusively a farmer’s market, but I would love to have lots of farmers there,” said Villa. “I think it’s another draw. Plus it gives people a place to buy fresh local produce and support our Alaska farmers. … If we can increase the demand for Alaskan-grown produce, our farmers can rise to that demand.”

Villa said she was at the workshop to “get educated on marketing skills, and hopefully network with farmers in the community, so hopefully I can get some interest.”

Amy Petit, marketing team leader at the Alaska Division of Agriculture and a speaker at the event, said that the information and networking opportunities provided by the workshop filled an increasing need.

“There’s huge growth in the number of farmer’s markets in Alaska, and we’re just trying to point them in all the right directions,” said Petit. “In 2005, when I started at the Division, there were 13 markets state-wide. I believe on the peninsula there was one in Homer and two in Kenai. Today there is potential for five different markets here, just in central Kenai.”

Petit said that the growth in farmer’s markets was driven by two complimentary trends.

“Everybody wants to know where their food comes from,” said Petit. “So the consumers are looking for fresher options, local food. And then there’s been a huge growth in the people growing more food. In Alaska, we’re removed from where the majority of the food is produced, down in the Lower 48, and there’s a lot of opportunity up here. So we have more and more folks expanding their gardens, participating in the high tunnel program, growing more food. The farmer’s market is a great outlet to bring those two groups of people together.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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