Keep Farming Northampton report urges city to pursue a permanent farmers market



Last modified: Sunday, January 12, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — The city should pursue a permanent, year-round farmers market downtown that would not only serve as a draw for local food growers and consumers but also include a community center hosting a variety of other events.

The farmers market is among the top recommendations emerging from a comprehensive, four-year study on the local food movement in Northampton. The “Keep Farming Northampton” study outlines a series of recommendations its authors believe will boost the local food economy and raise awareness about local food.

“We think Northampton is really poised to become a local food destination,” said Adele Franks, a volunteer member of Keep Farming Northampton.

The report, a project of the city’s Agricultural Commission, also calls for improvements to the region’s food distribution efforts, including the creation of a smartphone application to make it easier for restaurants and institutions to place orders for local food directly from farmers. Other ideas include starting a local food week and opening lines of communication between institutions about ways to incorporate local food in their meals.

The report’s conclusions are based on a series of comprehensive surveys that examined how consumers, farmers, restaurants and institutions produce, distribute, sell and buy local food. The surveys revealed that interest in local food is high among all players, but that there are common barriers that prevent more growth. Among those are seasonal availability of products; processing and storage constraints; regular, reliable distributions; a perceived high price of local foods; awareness of and access to information; and state and federal regulations.

“There’s a great deal of interest but we’re lacking some of the infrastructure,” Franks said.

The report also found that local food can be a significant economic driver in the city, especially given a potential market of 16,000 meals being served daily at homes, restaurants and institutions such as Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Smith College. Estimates put the cost of making those meals at nearly $12 million a year, which Franks describes as “really conservative” because it is based only on those surveyed.

The authors of the Keep Farming report presented the survey findings and outlined a series of 10 recommendations they want the city to pursue in a December presentation to the Agricultural Commission. Franks would like to see the commission back the recommendations and move the ideas along to other city departments and committees.

The recommendations fall under three main categories: economic development, information sharing and municipal support.

The idea for a permanent farmer’s market is not new, though Keep Farming Northampton believes it is among the most important initiatives the city can undertake to spur economic activity in the area of local food. The market would ideally be a publicly owned facility for food-related activities such as workshops and events, but it would also have indoor space for other community events.

The group said the market should be located downtown to drive people to the city’s center, and they pegged the vacant Round House lot behind Pulaski Park as an ideal location. Franks said there are also a number of parking lots in the area that might work as well. Years ago, a farmers market was proposed in a parking lot off Hampton Avenue.

At least one other community is testing the idea of a year-round farmers market. In November, Amherst opened a co-op called All Things Local in its downtown. The market features wares from about 50 local producers, from meats to alpaca wool. The idea of the market is to return 80 percent of the sale price of an item to the farmer or craftsperson and 20 percent to the co-op, which is also supported by memberships.

Other recommendations in the Keep Farming Northampton report include:

∎ Establishing a processing facility and community center within the farmers market. The processing center would be a place to peel, chop, package and store vegetables so that they could be conveniently available, especially out of season. The community center would host workshops and networking nights to help farmers expand their businesses, for example.

“A lot of this stuff is already happening,” Franks said. “This would be a fantastic way of bringing everybody into one place where all this activity is going on.”

∎ Starting a local food week highlighting products grown in the region. The week could include cooking contests among local chefs, a food and farming film festival, and food-related lectures and demonstrations. Franks believes such an event would enable restaurants to better market dishes that contain local food, something many owners surveyed said they need to improve upon.

∎ Increasing access to local food for people with lower incomes by enhancing an existing double food stamp campaign. This would be done through an aggressive private fundraising campaign and partnership with an institution that would sponsor the program.

∎ Working with supermarkets to highlight local food, including pursuit of consistent labeling of all local food.

∎ Creating a mobile marketplace app that connects restaurants, farmers and institutional food buyers.

∎ Promoting networking events through which food service directors at the region’s major institutions could share ways to use more local food. The recommendation also calls for the creation of a salaried farm-to-fork liaison.

Franks said the University of Massachusetts Amherst has done an excellent job emphasizing its use of local food and gets “rave reviews” for the effort. “It would be great if they could share that information with other institutions on a regular basis,” she said.

Keep Farming participants realized that Northampton by itself is too small for all of the recommendations to be effective, which is why they believe the ideas should be implemented with other organizations such as the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

Students from two Smith College programs helped conduct the surveys, along with local volunteers, and presented much of the information at last month’s meeting. The college’s Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability compiled the results into a larger report that will put the information in a regional context. Two students, Julia Jones and Julia Whiting, presented the findings at last month’s forum.

Volunteers worked with the nonprofit Glynwood Institute of Cold Spring, N.Y., which created a template for gathering and analyzing information about community agriculture and consumption.


 


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