|By TIM THORNBERRY
FRANKFORT, Ky. — While agritourism may still not be listed in all dictionaries, the word is gaining popularity in the state as it encompasses everything from Thoroughbred horses to bourdon whiskey.
But the heart of this not-so-new idea may lie in the unique markets that can literally be found in almost every county in Kentucky.
Tourism in itself is a multi-billion dollar industry in the commonwealth, so the natural fit between an already bustling business and the agriculture community seemed inevitable.
In 2002, the state’s General Assembly passed a bill that created the Office of Agritourism. The Office was created to promote Kentucky’s agritourism industry and assist in sustaining its growth.
It is, without question, the equine industry that gives the state’s agritourism trade its highest profile entity, but it is the nearly 100 farmers’ markets that have provided a front line invitation to the public to purchase home-grown commodities while creating opportunities for local producers to diversify their farming operations, not to mention providing a constant supply of festivals and activities throughout the year in many rural and small town areas.
If Joe McNealy has his way, however, the state’s largest city will soon be home to one of the largest and most unique markets in the region.
McNealy is with the Russell Neighborhood Development Authority, Inc. and is leading an effort to bring a new open-air farmers’ market to the heart of Louisville.
“We have been working on the project for about two years and hope to see 20 to 30 vendors involved,” said McNealy who serves as director of the market. “One thing we would require is that the vendors would be the producers as well to ensure top quality for the customers.”
The group received a grant from the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy (Phase I) to do a feasibility study of the area to see how viable a market would be in the proposed area.
The study showed that an estimated quarter of a million people live within a five mile radius of the market location creating a total potential demand of more than $7.5 million.
The Ninth Street Market, as it will be known, is actually just the beginning of what McNealy hopes to be a much larger project.
“We would eventually like to see this grow into something much bigger called the Food Precinct,” said McNealy. “It would be a market square with the open air market, various craft and artisan vendors along with a food processing and packing facility which would turn any unsold commodities into bulk and smaller packages to be sold to state agencies or schools.”
McNealy came up with the idea while doing graduate work at the University of Louisville. He secured a grant from the local Metro United Way and created the West Russell Neighborhood Project to identify community needs in the neighborhood.
Working with local residents, community agencies and UL students and faculty, the group discovered business strategies that would fit with the area’s social and economical characteristics. The study concluded that demand was enough to support such a market.
“We needed a place to begin so the open air market idea seemed to be a good starting point,” said McNealy.
Local farmers looking for a new opportunity to retail their products were invited to an exploratory meeting held on Dec. 1 to discuss the market. Despite bad weather, many producers showed up to gain a brief overview of the opportunity and discuss details such as potential sites, rules, products, and sales times.
“We didn’t know what to expect with the weather on that day,” said McNealy. “But we were surprised and we even had some farmers sign up. We want to make the market regional in scope with vendors from10 to 15 counties in Kentucky and five to seven counties in Indiana.”
The market will even feature an educational component for students in which they would sell goods to customers as a way to learn what it takes to run a small business.
“We want a little of everything here,” said McNealy. We want arts and crafts, produce and prepared foods. I think we have a good location. Nearly 45,000 cars pass this location everyday.”
A recent report prepared by University of Kentucky (UK) ag economists suggests a mixed year expected for commercial fruit and vegetables but said that farmers’ markets will be a significant factor.
“Gross sales will continue to be driven by higher-value direct marketing at farmers’ markets, directly off the farm,” said the report.
UK Extension Professor Lee Meyer said that farmers generally do well in market settings.
“While the percentage of farmers who are focused on farmers’ markets, subscription sales, direct and at-the-farm sales is small, those who do are finding an increasing interest among consumers in locally produced foods,” said Meyer. “These farmers who are market-focused are doing well. That leads to greater volumes and more markets, making it more convenient for consumers while adding opportunities for farmers.”
Agritourism will continue to evolve in the state as new ventures arise and Joe McNealy plans on bringing one of those ventures to life as soon as possible.
“Right now we are just beating the bushes and trying to get the word out,” he said.
“I’m willing to do whatever I can to make this happen and create excitement that hasn’t been seen in Louisville in a long time.”
The Ninth Street Farmers’ Market is expected to open the first week in May (Kentucky Derby week) and stay open until Dec. 24.
For more information, contact Joe McNealy at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in the January 4, 2006 issue of Farm World.