Leader Blues

Friday, March 05, 2010

TOP STORY >> Farmers market open to all

Construction workers from Brockway Services in Beebe on Friday erect steel girders, which will become the Jacksonville Farmers Market near the community center.

By RICK KRON

Leader staff writer

Leader staff writer When the twice-weekly Jacksonville farmers market opens under its new 2,100-square-foot pavilion in April, it will be stocked with more than just Arkansas-grown produce.

After more than 30 minutes of debate Thursday night over the issue of leaving the market as an Arkansas-only outlet or not, the city council unanimously voted to open it up to all produce.

But it may all be for naught as farmer Kelly Carney told the council that state farmers have about 40 state legislators backing a bill that would make farmers markets open to Arkansas products and produce only. “It should pass in 2011,” Carney said.

Jody Hardin, a fifth-generation farmer, called changing the current city ordinance from Arkansas-only to any produce a “big mistake that would jeopardize the city’s relationship with local farmers and even the area supermarkets.”

The controversy goes beyond the local farmers; it hits Mayor Gary Fletcher squarely at home. His wife’s family operates Kyzer wholesale produce and under the new ordinance would be able to sell its imported produce at the local farmer’s market.

“I’ve been trying to keep quiet,” Fletcher said after about 30 minutes of debate. “This has been a nightmare for me. I have no way to win in this. I married a Kyzer. Unless I divorce her, I can’t win.”

The mayor went on to tell the council, “There is no conspiracy. In the seven months since I’ve been mayor, everything I’ve done is what I think is best for the community. I can tell you right now, I’m not making any money off this and neither is my wife’s family.”

The city is building a $225,000 pavilion for the market.

The city’s director of administration, Jim Durham, told the council, “You’ve heard that rising tides raise all ships. That’ll be the case here. I rather have 2,000 people visit the market because we have diversity and a variety than just 200 people because we have only local in-season produce.”

Durham didn’t see how excluding a group from selling was fair to the taxpayers who have the right to choose whether they want to buy local or not.

He added that Little Rock’s River Market was not restricted and was doing well.

The Arkansas-only market in North Little Rock, now in its third year, saw the number of vendors nearly triple from year one to year two. But Durham lacks the faith that the same thriving market can be replicated in Jacksonville if it relies solely on local produce.

He fears that there won’t be enough locally grown early-season produce to establish a strong customer base when the Jacksonville market opens in April.

If people go away disappointed, Durham said, it will be hard to get shoppers to come back again.

“We absolutely want as many Arkansas grown and produced products as we can, but we are not going to give them an exclusive license,” Durham said.

“We want a farmers market full of vendors, preferably local people with locally produced products. But if you have four Arkansas-only vendors, the supply can’t meet the demand,” he said.

Durham disagrees with those who say that non-local goods will hurt the local growers, but if that proves to be true, he says the city can look at a policy change.

Julann Carney, a Sherwood resident and sister of farmer Carney, felt Durham had it backwards.

“You’ve been on the cutting edge with an ordinance that only allows Arkansas produce. Why not stay with it? And then if it doesn’t draw the people it should, then change it,” Carney said.

The new ordinance is written to give wide latitude to the parks and recreation department, which has been put in charge of setting regulations for the farmers market and managing it.

“The parks and recreation department can designation an Arkansas-only day, if it wishes,” the mayor said.

The market, under the new ordinance, will be open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays.There will be no reserved spaces. It will be first-come, first-served. But there is talk of giving local growers preferential spots at the market.

“We want it more wide open – the more people come in, the more likely the (local growers) will sell out,” Durham said. “We don’t want to restrict it.”

On other days, vendors may use the southernmost 100 feet of the parking lot to sell their goods. Hours all days of the week will be 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., except on Sunday, when hours will be 6 a.m. to noon.

Under the new ordinance, there will be no restriction on resellers of wholesale items made out of Arkansas. That means, that there will be no requirement that a vendor must have made or grown a portion of goods sold.

The ordinance will allow the sale of the following grown or produced items: baked goods, cheeses, flowers, fruit, grain, honey, marinades and sauces, molasses, plants, raw juices, trees, vegetables and other similar produce.

Also allowable are pieces of art, crafts and other handmade products.

Hardin and the Carneys left the council meeting disappointed and feeling that the new ordinance will destroy the heart of the market, but they still plan to be there when it opens.

In other council business:

City Engineer Jay Whisker told the council, in his monthly report, that his department issued 17 building permits and 14 business licenses in February. The department also performed more than 70 inspections and issued 97 warning letters to residents for excessive trash, unkempt lawns or hazardous property conditions.

In his monthly report, public works director Jim Oakley said the animal shelter received 99 dogs and 22 cats during February. Shelter officials were able to adopt out 48 dogs and 13 cats and returned 29 dogs to their owners. The shelter had to euthanize 28 dogs and three cats.

Three bite cases were reported during February: a dachshund bit his owner, a hound mix bit his owner and a Boston terrier bit his owner. None of the dogs were declared vicious and the shelter took no action.

The council agreed to waive competitive bidding to allow the wastewater utility to buy up to 321 linear feet of piping material for around $80,000 from a Hot Springs company.

Aldermen agreed to the request because the company already had the annual contract for sewer rehabilitation and construction.

(Leader staff writer Nancy Dockter contributed to this article.)