Farmers Markets Sprout In Arkansas' Urban Areas

Farmers markets have mushroomed in central Arkansas in the last couple of decades, growing from just a couple in the Little Rock area 20 years ago to a half dozen.

As their numbers have grown so has their focus. The Argenta Farmers Market in North Little Rock certifies that the products sold there are grown in Arkansas. The Arkansas Local Food Network is an online farmers market that among other services provides a directory of community gardens in the area.

In northwest Arkansas, the story is much the same. The Bentonville Farmers Market had sales of $348,000 in 2011, rising to more than $600,000 in 2013, said Nicki Dallison, the market’s manager.

“When I came on board in 2010, we probably had about 40 markets at that time, and that’s just grown unbelievably,” said Zachary Taylor, director of marketing with the Arkansas Agriculture Department. The tally compiled by Arkansas Business using information from the state Agriculture Department lists 70 markets throughout the state.

“The whole buying local concept was just starting to take off,” he said. “Now, it’s really grown by leaps and bounds.”

And farmers markets have continued to expand their offerings, featuring not only produce and fruit but selling meat, eggs, dairy products and prepared foods, along with crafts.

Barbara Armstrong, the manager and co-founder of the Argenta Farmers Market, said the market, which opens March 29, will feature eight new vendors, among them three new meat purveyors, bringing its vendor total to 32.

She also is excited about the addition of a “culinary team” to the market that will offer cooking demonstrations, an effort to involve the community more in the market and to educate customers about how to cook what they buy at the market.

Get the List: Buy the list of the state's farmers markets here.

Armstrong interviews the farmers to confirm that they grow what they sell. “It’s the integrity of the market that I’m really trying to continue,” she said.

The market was founded in 2008 as the Certified Arkansas Farmers Market, but was reorganized in 2012 as the Argenta Farmers Market.

Armstrong is looking ahead to plans to develop the Argenta Plaza near the market, currently in the vicinity of 600 Main St. in North Little Rock. She’s hopeful that construction will start in the fall, and once it’s complete the farmers market will move to the plaza.

“It’s going to be a big, huge plaza, a European-style farmers market,” Armstrong said. “It’s going to be really awesome.”

In Bentonville, Dallison said, “It’s pretty amazing how this farmers market has grown.” The market, now in its 39th year, has increased its offerings just as others have. “We have pork, beef, chicken, lamb, turkey, and I think I have a vendor bringing in goat this year,” she said. “It’s almost like you could do all of your shopping at the market if you planned ahead.”

The market, held at the city’s downtown square, has been the beneficiary of consumers’ increased interest in where their food comes from as well as increased tourism to the region.

Greater tourism has helped in particular the market’s craft vendors. Tourists “want a little piece of Arkansas that’s handmade by someone in Arkansas,” Dallison said.

The Fayetteville Farmers Market just down the road will have more than 100 vendors this season, along with musicians, face painters and street performers, as well as a new food truck.

In Little Rock, the Hillcrest neighborhood has benefited from a farmers market that’s open year-round, the Hillcrest Farmers Market at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church. A more diverse selection of products — poultry, baked goods, other prepared foods — that can be sold throughout the year has enabled the shift.

The Rev. Carolyn Staley, who this year is leaving her role as market manager, said residents have expressed appreciation for a location that serves as a neighborhood square as much as anything.

Taylor has seen a surge in young people wanting to become “farmers market farmers” in central Arkansas and northwest Arkansas, while in other parts of the state the population of farmers is dwindling as they grow older. “There’s just no one to take their place,” he said.

Taylor said there seems to be more support in central Arkansas for growers who want to produce for farmers markets. “If someone is selling at a farmers market and they mention that they’re looking to expand or would like to farm some more ground, that word gets around, where I think in some of these other areas it doesn’t.”

Armstrong thinks there’s a healthy future for farmers markets: “People love farmers. You’ve got to eat.”