By TIM THORNBERRY
LEXINGTON, Ky. — In less than a week, one of the state’s largest farmers’ markets will reconvene in its downtown Lexington location, a sight that has become familiar to residents all across the region.
Under the giant Fifth Third Bank Pavilion dozens of vendors will once again cater to thousands of customers, as part of the Lexington Farmers’ Market (LFM) that now serves multiple locations and stays open in some capacity all year.
Jeff Dabbelt serves as the market’s executive director and has seen the growth in it as well as in the demand for local foods. He said since the market is really open all year, with an indoor location during the winter months, things are ready to go for the outdoor markets.
“We have everything from traditional row crops to olive oils and vinegars, to fresh fruit juices and try to make it good for our retail customers, our cooperative that is member-funded, and give a fair shake to everybody as far as the opportunity to sell and succeed at the market,” Dabbelt said.
With 80 members, the LFM brings a level of diversity to the products sold there and volume for customers. Those vendor numbers have remained steady for a number of years.
The LFM has been in existence since 1975, when markets were rare. Today, however, thanks to initiatives by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture (KDA) and Kentucky Farm Bureau (KFB), there are a multitude of markets all across the state.
According to KDA, there are 147 markets in 92 counties and the KFB Certified Roadside Market program lists 106 market members.
Many of those serve rural communities, allowing farmers to stay close to home yet still find a market for their goods. But it is the urban areas that an expansion in markets and a customer base using them is being seen. In Louisville, for instance, no fewer than 24 neighborhood markets accommodate the state’s largest city.
But the LFM has retained some of that small-time feel in a large market. Dabbelt said while getting accurate customer numbers in a given season is difficult, it is fair to estimate on any given market day approximately 5,000 customers will visit.
Those numbers may vary depending on factors like the weather, but Dabbelt noted vendors have a good take on the crowd – and more importantly, if the crowd is buying.
“My job, in general, is to get people there. Our farmers’ jobs are to keep them there; keep them coming back and looking them in the eye and getting that loyal response,” he said.
That has paid off for vendors, with sales last year reaching the $2.4 million mark. And there are some vendors that have been with the market since the beginning. Today LFM boasts four markets throughout the city including the indoor venue for winter.
“All of our markets are usually strong … and that speaks volumes to me. We have something that is very impressive and well established. It precedes me and if all goes well, will continue on long after I’m gone,” Dabbelt said.
The LFM has also proven to be a model for other markets in the area and beyond. Dabbelt said he is always willing to share with others because he learns something from them.
Farming in central Kentucky was once dominated by tobacco. In the last 10 years, however, many of those farms have diversified to grow produce or other agricultural products. Dabbelt said the market has been a good venue for many of those farmers to sell products, and that ability to diversify has been aided greatly by tobacco settlement dollars and the Kentucky Proud program.
As the local food movement continues to grow, the LFM is likely to do the same and vendors should continue to have a strong market for their goods.
“The local food movement is taking off nationally and there is an undeniable level of energy here in Fayette County. There’s urban gardening, aquaculture, local restaurants featuring more local goods. It goes all the way up to city hall,” Dabbelt said.
Local government in Fayette County is considering creating a local food coordinator, he added. He believes just the fact that those conversations are going on shows a high level of collaboration between many local partners.
For more information about the LFM, visit its website at www.lexingtonfarmersmarket.com