Wednesday, March 10, 1999

Farmers market being built without state help

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        RICHWOOD — Three years after Kentucky officials dropped plans to build a farmers market in Boone County, a private business owner is close to opening one.

        Mike Stallings, owner of the Richwood Flea Market on U.S. 25 in Boone County, is building a farmers market that he plans to open in April next to his flea market.

        Mr. Stallings, whose family has operated the popular flea market for 13 years, said it will give local growers a place to sell produce.

        “The market for fresh produce is really underserved in this area,” Mr. Stallings said. “And we're going to give preferential treatment, like locations and space in the market, to local growers. They need somewhere to sell.”

        Growers will lease booth space from Mr. Stallings, as do vendors in the flea market.

        Because citrus fruits can't be grown here, some small retail and wholesale produce companies will be invited to rent booths so their products can be offered at the market. “But we're trying to keep it for the local growers as much as possible,” Mr. Stallings said.

        Mark Hempfling, whose fam ily has been farming in Boone County for 120 years, was happy to hear about the farmers market and said he intends to sell produce there.

        “It's a great idea. We need it bad, and it will be a success,” said Mr. Hempfling, who was disappointed in 1996 when the state dropped plans to build a publicly funded farmers market in Richwood.

        “People will flock to it — both the buyers and the sellers. There are some smaller farmers markets operating around Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati, but nothing all that large. The family farmer needs a place to sell what they grow,” Mr. Hempfling said.

        The 3,400-square-foot market, much smaller than the 120,000-square-foot flea market, will have room for 48 booths. It will open in April, though work on the building is still being done and an exact opening date has not been set.

        Initially, the farmers market will be open Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, the same days as the flea market. But if business is good, the farmers market will open a night or two during the week, Mr. Stallings said.

        State and local leaders, including former Gov. Brereton Jones and former Boone County Judge-executive Bruce Ferguson, worked in the early 1990s to find funding to build an $8 million farmers market on land not far from the Richwood Flea Market.

        But land costs and a Kentucky General Assembly unwilling to fund the project caused it to die in 1996.

        Mr. Stallings was involved in that effort but said the government could not make it happen. “Private enterprise just does things like this better than the government,” he said. “Unless there is a profit motive, like there is in private business, a project like that is doomed for failure.”

        But Mr. Stallings didn't let the project completely die. He contacted the business school at Northern Kentucky University, which does market research as part of its curriculum.

        “The study came back and said a farmers market would be very viable. That was two years ago, and I've been working on getting this done ever since,” he said.

        He also knows from experience how well produce sells at the flea market. “It's one of our most popular booths. People come down on Saturday mornings, when everything is so fresh, just for the produce,” he said.

        Red's Produce, a dealer from Cold Spring, operates a flea market booth and will move over to be the anchor tenant in the farmers market.

        Farmers markets are popular in other parts of the country and in some places, such as Asheville, N.C., are tourist attractions. The Asheville market does more than $40 million in sales annually.

        Karen Armstrong-Cummings, director of the Commodity Growers Cooperative Association in Lexington, said there is a need statewide for small farmers to sell their produce.

        “But consumers also love the markets and from research we've done, there is real need for fresh, locally grown produce in large, urban population areas” like Northern Kentucky, she said.

        Ms. Armstrong-Cummings predicted the market will be a success. “(Mr. Stallings) has done his homework. There's a market up there for a farmers market, and he knows it.”


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