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Farmers' Markets Getting Fresh Business

At a time when grocery stores compete aggressively on food prices, area farmers' markets are becoming increasingly popular. While farmers' markets offer fewer choices and generally higher prices, some consumers say they'll pay more to shorten the distance between field and table. There's a farmers' market that takes place in Dublin every Wednesday afternoon from May through September. It's still early in the season, so there's not a lot of produce to choose from. But even so, shoppers are strolling among vendors who are selling herbs, asparagus, meats, honey and maple syrup. Several of the vendors offer free samples to passers by. Shoppers taste a dip made with herbs by Brenda Wisse. Wisse describes herself as a 'culinary herbalist.' She says she's relatively new to the farmer's market business and she enjoys it. "I love talking with people and teaching them to use herbs. And that's what I'm all about. " There's a lot of interaction at farmers' markets. Christie Welch is Ohio State University's farmers' market specialist. "The interest in local foods by the consumer is higher than it's been in many, many years and I think that's evident almost everywhere you look," Welch says. "Grocery stores are even promoting local foods so people just really want to know and have that connection with the person that's producing their food. And that's the other benefit of a farmer's market; the consumer can actually interact with the person that's growing their food." Concern about food safety is one of the main reasons driving the desire for more locally grown produce, according to Welch. Consumers are more confident when they can actually talk face-to-face with the person that's producing the food. "It just gives the person the opportunity to ask questions [like] 'How was it produced?' 'Where was it produced?' Those kinds of things and 'Are you doing it in a sustainable manner?" says shopper Lisa Tuggle. "I'm now a stay-at-home mom and I have time and I'd much rather buy local than from places I don't know." Some foods sold at farmers' markets are regulated by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, while other foods are not. A vendor can sell whole produce without state oversight, for example, but produce that is chopped or cut up is considered processed and that's subject to state regulations. Terri Gerhardt is the assistant chief of food safety at the Ohio Department of Agriculture. "Once you take a whole, intact produce and start to change its form, you are processing, and as such it is required that you are processing under the division of food safety," Gerhardt says. "But as long as you sell whole intact produce, there is no regulation in the state of Ohio when you sell whole, intact produce." Certain other products Gerhardt says are exempt from regulations. Baked goods that need no refrigeration fall into this category. But what about regulations concerning meat? Meats are regulated because they're processed. But there's no requirement that preservatives be added. In fact, says the ODA's Terri Gerhardt, farmers' market meats are quite similar to what you'll find at grocery stores. "It's the same quality of meat the same type of meat that is offered at the grocery store. A lot of times I know the farmer's market I attend it's usually processed; it's BBQ pork, it's bacon; there are chicken breasts; there is nothing added to them. There might be meats out there that have additives, but it's not a requirement." The great majority of vendors at farmers' markets are selling produce. The Dublin Farmers' Market does have a meat vendor. Carson Woods is one of the owners of the Oink Moo Cluck Farm. He says facilities that process meats, like his own, are inspected by government employees. "You actually have a state meat inspector employee who is actually a state meat inspector who comes in every day to check in to make sure you're abiding by all the state regulations and processes obviously first and foremost is health and safety and that's what the role of the inspector is, is to make sure you're doing everything in a healthy manner," Woods says. "You're going to be preparing the meat such that it's going to be safe for consumers to eat." Woods says their operation does not add preservatives to the beef pork or poultry that they sell. "You know something like a pork chop or steak is going to be simply a fresh piece of meat that is going to be sliced appropriately for its particular cut. Because everything we do is flash freeze we don't have to add any preservatives; the shelf life is such that most of our customers are going to consume it in a short period of time." Farmers' markets may not have the variety of grocery stores, but they do have one advantage: the products, say farmers' market enthusiasts, are as fresh as you can find them. Jaime Moore is the Dublin Farmers' Market coordinator. "When you're shopping here you're buying directly from the farmer. There's no middle man, there's no wait time. I would say that some of our vendors — with the exception of some frozen meats, but even those are pretty fresh – with the vegetables and the baked goods, they're being baked, they're being picked, they're being harvested the morning of or the night before," Moore says. "And that just isn't possible in the grocery store; you're talking about weeks and sometimes maybe even a month depending upon where in the world they're coming from." As the growing season gets into full swing, so will area farmers markets. The state department of agriculture lists more than two dozen farmers' markets in Franklin County alone. A statewide list of farmers' markets is available at www.ohioproud.org.