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June 13, 2013

Farmers groups split into two different markets

JACKSONVILLE — A partnership between local farmers and the East Texas Community Food Coalition has been short-lived, resulting in two different open air markets operating on the same day this week in Jacksonville.

Attempts to contact Carmen Sosa, food coalition market director, were unsuccessful Wednesday afternoon, but according to a post on the group's Facebook page on Monday, followers were alerted to a change in venue.

“Heads up! We'll be at our new location tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing y'all there!” the first part of the post read, followed by “Oops-a-daisy, we lost our lease! So, in a mad dash to find another location the City of Jacksonville has graciously offered the Chamber of Commerce/Norman Activity Center parking lot as our new (temporary?) home. We will be there tomorrow, ready to sell at 5 p.m. sharp …. We'll have a great selection of produce grown right here in Jacksonville!”

According to its website, www.foodcoalition.org, the East Texas Community Food Coalition has partnered with two farmers' markets in Tyler – where the group is based – as well as in Jacksonville and Rusk.

Formed last year, the not-for-profit organization aims “to help nourish sustainable communities by creating better access to affordable and nutritious food,” the website states. Produce offered for sale is grown within 75 miles of market sites.

Lois Hutson, a Lone Star Military Farmers support specialist, said that the perks of partnering with the coalition looked good – especially being able to accept WIC vouchers through a grant secured by ETCFC – the cost to farmers was far greater than what they initially signed up for when the idea for such markets in Rusk and Jacksonville was proposed earlier this year.

“When our farmers met at the beginning of the year, there was an agreement among us on what to pay to set up a booth this season in both places – we chose to pay $10 for a season at both sites, and Sadler's was gracious to offer to host it” at their 101 S. Bonner site in Jacksonville, she said.

To keep costs low, Hutson and her husband Stephen – Jr. Vice Commandant of the local Marine Corps League Det. #1381 – offered to provide the operating permits for both market sites.

“We intentionally wanted to keep the overhead low so that we could help our local farmers,” she said, adding that the partnership with the community food coalition meant added costs for vendors by charging a fee for every table or booth set up during the season.

“I didn't even know this was going on – one of the farmers called me saying he could not believe the changes that we had made,” Hutson recalled.

“I ask what he meant, and he said, 'Changes in the cost.'”

Researching the matter, Hutson said she discovered the “per use” cost issued by the coalition for each of its members was much higher than the seasonal amount that local farmers were paying.

“The Tyler group wanted to charge another amount … as soon as I realized what was going on, I stood up and said, 'We're here for the farmers – we're not here to make money,'” she said, choosing “not to participate because of that.

“It was not sensible to ask our farmers to do that” when they already agreed to an original fee, Hutson said.

Probably the biggest disappointment, she added, was not being able to participate in the WIC voucher program offered through a grant secured by the coalition.

“Jacksonville has a need for this program; this is where the City of Jacksonville needs to step up and offer it to its people,” she said.

Because Cherokee County is an economically disadvantaged area, “it would be a great program if we were able to get it locally, she added.

Since the Farmers Market at Sadler's is unaffiliated with the newer Jacksonville Farmers Market, vendors have been instructed to direct WIC clients “to the other market.

“We were all in agreement on doing that, on sending them to that area,” Hutson said.

Despite whatever confusion the split may have caused, Tuesday's market day was successful, according the ETCFC Facebook page.

“Lots of folks here this evening!” read the caption over a photo depicting consumers examining produce.

Hutson said the Sadler's site also drew in a good crowd, with 12 vendors providing fresh goodies for buyers.

“We had a real good turnout despite the confusion over what's going on,” she said.

Because the initial growing season was off to a delayed start thanks to cooler temperatures this spring, Hutson said farmers expect the market season to run later this year.

“They're the ones who know best,” she laughed.

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