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Opinion: Anderson Deserves an Better Farmers Market

By Greg Wilson/Anderson Observer

Spring is here, and as some of our friends and neighbors efforts turn to digging garden beds for the season, others look forward to a finding the best place to find the best fresh, local produce. And while harvest is plentiful, the vendors are few. So are concrete efforts for improving the Anderson County Farmers Market. 

The Anderson County Farmers Market was once the ideal destinationm - produce central - with vendors overflowing, live music, good food, and demonstrations on gardening and more.  

Over the past decade, Anderson County have been among the most progressive counties in the state, a model others counties are are looking to emulate. From economic development’s success in bringing in nearly $4 billion in investment and thousands of new jobs, to improving recreational activities with the expansion of Green Pond to planned efforts to improve offerings at the civic center, the opportunities for citizens and their children to enjoy a fine quality of life (and future) have blossomed over the past 10 years.

But there remains one glaring thorn in our garden of progress, one which has us falling behind most other counties and even many small towns. 

In contrast to other counties and communities in the Upstate, the Anderson County Farmers Market has been allowed to nearly go to seed over the past few years. Meanwhile, as other county/community markets have grown in offerings of fresh produce and products, our farmers market has not only shown little progress, it has regressed.  

There are still some wonderful vendors and great county farmers bringing in their harvest - and we owe each of them a debt of gratitude for keeping the market open. And those county employees who are charged with running the market have done their best, but their hands are tied. 

But while our crowds are usually pretty good in the prime growing season on Saturdays, our offerings are so pale in comparison to the growth and expansion of other markets the time for change is long overdue.

The primary reasons for the stagnation of progress at the Anderson County Farmers Market lie in a set of exclusionary rules and an appointed governing board with little vision/planning for assuring the success of the market. Whether through neglect or other motives, the Farmers Market Board, which does not hold regular meetings, has retarded progress. It's time for Anderson County Council to re-evaluate the members of this board and ask a series of questions about why the market is close to withering on the vine.

The first regulation on the guidelines for the Anderson County Farmers Market, set by the market board, is a primary reason for our lack of growth and progress:

“All items offered for sale must be produced in Anderson County at the farm or business specified on the application.” 

The number of farmers and gardeners with large harvest, through attrition or other reasons, continues to dwindle every year in Anderson County. To restrict produce at our market to the county’s boundaries puts us on an archaic island.  

No other county in the Upstate (and no easily located county anywhere else in the country) has such a restrictive rule. Not in Greenville, where there are no spaces left for their 2018 market, or Greenwood, where their farmers market is a hub for community entertainment and activity, nor in Spartanburg, Easley, or Clemson. 

And while it is important to protect the integrity of the produce and other foods/goods sold at markets, there is no “local” differential between a tomato grown in Powdersville and one grown just over the line in Greenville County. Same is true of a tomato grown Abbeville, Oconee, Greenwood, Pickens. Such produce is local produce.

Others markets recognize this truth. Most counties and markets have a radius of between 75-100 miles for allowing produce in their markets. Such guidelines attract more growers/vendors, allowing for a much larger selection of goods, while at the same time protecting the market from unscrupulous truck farmers unloading excess harvests from distant states. 

It is time for Anderson to follow this definition of local to help revive our market and help it reflect the model of progress on exhibit in the rest of the county.

Farmers markets are important to economic growth and reflect on quality of life in a community. In South Carolina, the markets create between 257 and 361 full-time jobs and generate up to $13 million every year.

But visit the Anderson Farmers Market on a typical Tuesday or Thursday in recent years, and it is often a near ghost town. Saturdays are better, but still no match for many neighboring markets, including those in smaller areas.

Community residents who are passionate about locally grown food have been crying in the wilderness about this issue for years. In 2011, the Anderson Area Farm & Food Association was founded at least in part as an attempt to provide a larger, more inclusive and lively market. But generating interest in a second weeknight market proved too steep a climb. The group still exists as an advocate of sustainable local food, but no longer hosts a market.

Anderson County Administrator Rusty Burns said he he agrees there is work to be done. Burns has long been an advocate of improving and updating the Anderson County Farmers Market.

He has repeatedly suggested the need for more events and entertainment at the market, and said he recognizes the decline and is working on changes. 

“A lot of our mainstays are aging out,” Burns said. “We have to find different ways to spice up our market and make it better. We want to see more and better things, and that’s what we’re looking at in the upcoming season.” 

Such a goal will take getting the attention of council, who appoints the board which governs the rules of the market to make things better. Such discussion has been on council’s back burner for at least two years.

With our Famers Market set to open in just a few weeks, it’s not to late to make this year’s Anderson County Farmers market a work in progress. Put out the welcome mat for those farmers who can’t get into the fully booked Greenville market and others this year. Set up events, from music to seminars, to attract more to the Satruday and evening markets. Serve prepared foods. Find some money in the budget to spice things up and make improvements. Do whatever it takes to bring in quality vendors who will attract more citizens to the market and create something of which the county can point to with pride.

Such moves are just the first step. A long-range plan (perhaps one-year, three-year and five-year plans), with every option on the table - including even the location of the market - is needed to keep it growing. 

The current county council has proven they are capable of excellent leadership. But time is long overdue to put that leadership on display in giving Anderson County the farmers market it deserves. 

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