Edible Entrepreneurism

Local farmers markets produce an economic impact of $4.76 million a year.
Cheryl Gerber
Crescent City Farmer’s Market includes four markets that operate weekly.

New Orleans is justifiably proud of its recent emergence as an entrepreneurial city, but there is another economic arena of which we have been at the forefront for over two decades. The Crescent City Farmers Market grew out of Loyola University’s Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice in 1995 and has been a leader of the national renaissance of public markets ever since.

As farming in the United States has trended ever-larger in scale — with corporate farms mass-producing crops for sales to nationwide grocery chains — farmers markets have provided an entrepreneurial opportunity for smaller growers, fishers and producers. With four markets currently operating on a weekly basis—including the French Market, the historic prototype for such venues —the Crescent City Farmers Market offers a wide variety of vendors the opportunity to sell an even wider variety of products.

A recent visit to the Mid-City Market, held Thursdays in the parking lot of the American Can building, was a perfect illustration. Offerings included fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods, eggs, sweets, pasta, jams, cheeses, and even fresh-made tofu, the last courtesy of the Vietnamese farmers co-op in eastern New Orleans.

“Selling at the market helps generate additional income for our community,” explained Khai Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Vietnam CDC, which supports a 1.5-acre community farm. According to Nguyen, many Vietnamese-American residents grow food for their own tables, but benefit from selling the excess.

“We have vendors from as far away as Alabama,” reported Wil Crary, market manager for Crescent City. “They come from all over the Northshore. And we have the urban farmers, like the Vietnamese co-op and from the Westbank.”

Heather Robertson of Johndale’s Farm in Ponchatoula grew up on a family farm, and sees the farmers markets as essential to continuing her way of life. She was one of the first vendors to participate, and has made numerous connections through the markets.

“We connected with Commander’s Palace at the market,” she recalls, “and we have now been supplying them with strawberries for 21 years. We sell to other Brennan restaurants as well as the Rouses grocery stores.

“A lot of chefs come to the markets. We see new restaurants every day, because they know this is where to come to get the freshest fruits and vegetables,” continues Robertson, adding that the market is still valuable for the direct-sales income as well as the additional contacts.

All this adds up to substantial economic impact: an estimated $4.76 million annually, according to a 2015 study. More than 52,000 shoppers patronized the markets last year, and direct sales were in excess of $1.6 million.

The health impacts may be even greater. The challenges of getting fresh produce in some parts of the city are well documented; the farmers markets are part of the solution. Not only do the markets accept SNAP (commonly known as food stamps), they will match up to $20 in SNAP credits per customer per visit. For economically struggling families, stretching their meal money while purchasing fresh, healthy foods is a tremendous opportunity.

This helps explain the diversity of patrons at the Mid-City Market. Millennials and African-American grandmothers mingled with Mid-City middle-aged, middle-income residents and even the occasional tourist. Despite the differences, there was one thing clearly in common: some very happy taste buds.

As a pioneer of the farmers market concept, Crescent City has been a laboratory of innovation and a mentor for public markets all over the country. But what the locals care about —vendors and customers alike—is an opportunity to reinvigorate this piece of New Orleans history and culture, enjoy friendly conversation, and most of all, share the best food in the world.

Keith Twitchell  spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.



Categories: Food, The Magazine