- Associated Press - Sunday, April 26, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - With farmers markets set to begin in dozens of cities across Iowa in the coming weeks, vendors and market managers alike are pulling out all the stops to draw in consumers.

National data suggest the tremendous growth in farmers markets has begun to ebb, with a slight decline in sales adjusted for inflation, but officials say customer and vendor retention efforts in Iowa have helped the state’s markets so far evade such a fate.

Paul Ovrom, administrator of the Farmers Market Nutrition Program through Iowa’s Department of Agriculture, said the biggest challenge has been finding enough producers to participate in the state’s roughly 165 farmer’s markets, especially in the smaller markets.

“Still, sales haven’t necessarily gone down in Iowa, proving that perhaps we’re bucking the trend going on,” Ovrom said.

Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market director Kelly Foss said figuring out ways to ensure incremental growth each year is crucial to the market’s success as it enters its 40th season. A large part of that, she said, is providing products unavailable elsewhere and rotating in different items to keep consumers interested.

New to the Des Moines market this year are cheeses made with a combination of sheep and goat milk, completely vegan baked goods, slabs of emu meat and duck, turkey and goose eggs.

“You just can’t get that if you go to a produce department at whatever grocery store,” Foss said.

Mushroom grower Todd Mills has sold oyster, shiitake and lion’s mane mushrooms in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and through his latest venture in Des Moines and a recently up-and-running growing lab at his Columbus Junction farm, he said he hopes to expand production and fill a niche now unserved at the downtown market - culinary gourmet mushrooms.

“I’ve gotten quite a bit of interest the few times I already sold out here in Des Moines,” Mills said. “The demand is pretty large.”

The Farmers Market Nutrition Program, implemented statewide last year, tapped into a subset of the population that previously may not have visited farmers markets, Ovrom said. Vouchers are distributed to low-income mothers and seniors and families with infants and children found to be at nutritional risk. Ovrom said recipients can then use the vouchers at local farmers markets, in an effort to encourage consumption of fresh produce.

Maury Wills, who serves as the bureau chief of agricultural diversification and market development within the Iowa Department of Agriculture, said production of staple farmers market items like peppers, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables shouldn’t change drastically this year. A steady increase in high tunnel farming in areas throughout the state, however, has allowed some growers to get their crops to market earlier and extend their season, Wills said. The sooner produce hits the stand, Wills said, the higher the demand and the better the price growers can ask for their product.

Stacy Orndorff, who runs the Sioux City Farmers Market, said her focus this year has been using social media to tap into a younger market and encouraging residents to incorporate farmers market visits into their weekly shopping.

“Because I’m aware that there’s a danger of our sales decreasing, I think it’s important to get that next generation coming in and showing them that the market is for them, too,” Orndorff said.

In the end, Foss said it comes down to establishing connections between customers and vendors.

“We want to make sure that when people are coming to the market, it’s a shopping experience, a community experience, and by keeping it unique, it’s more intriguing,” Foss said.

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