Sustainable Food Center finding new ways to bolster small farmers

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Jamey Gage_Austin Sustainable Food Center

On October 25, the Sustainable Food Center will shutter one of its three farmers’ markets due to declining customers and sales. The nonprofit operates farmers’ markets to offer local farmers an opportunity to sell directly to consumers and to offer consumers a chance to purchase local foods.

But the closure of the mid-week market doesn’t indicate Austin’s lack of interest in locally grown food, says Joy Casnovsky, deputy director of the nonprofit. Last year, SFC’s three farmers’ markets had $1.4 million in sales, a number she’s particularly proud of since, unlike some farmers’ markets, SFC requires sellers to be growers. “We want to make sure whatever is being sold is actually from a producer, not middlemen or wholesalers,” she said.

The closure is also not likely to hurt local sellers, she said, since most sellers anticipated it happening. Jayme Gage, a farmer who sold at the market, says the closure of the Wednesday market won’t affect his bottom line. “I loved the community and the customers we had, but we were just breaking even to be there,” he said. Gage says that while the markets are an important part of his business, most of his sales come from restaurants, a strategy he credits to SFC.

Gage was a farm hobbyist when he first visited an SFC market 10 years ago, and it was there he learned how SFC could help him launch his business. “Our first time with a booth at an SFC market, we were blown away by the response,” he said. “I’d never really expected to make a living doing this.”

In 2009, Gage was able to purchase more land in Lockhart to expand his crops, and in 2014 he was able to quit his job and become a farmer full time.

Gage said SFC’s work to promote local produce and products to the community has helped drive business, but the nonprofit has also helped him establish a network of restaurant customers and supporters. “There have been times when restaurants sponsored the cost of our booth or just bought more,” he said. “We work hand-in-hand with a lot of these chefs.”

Earlier this year, SFC expanded its innovative “double dollars” program, which matches customers’ SNAP, WIC and Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program benefits to include more markets, farms, and food stands, and it increased the amount it would match from $20 to $30. Casnovsky says more than $158,000 in sales could be attributed to this program last year. “That’s money being earned by farmers and local producers that otherwise might not have been spent there,” she said.

Three weeks ago, SFC received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help them determine if Austin could support a “food hub”, a program that could help small farms work together to serve the a large-scale food market, such as a school district or large employer. It’s a way to help small farmers get their produce to a market they wouldn’t otherwise be able to serve on their own, said Casnovsky.

“The nice thing about Austin is that people still want to invest in the local economy and local farmers,” said Casnovsky. But for Gage, SFC’s work has been the difference. “I couldn’t be a full-time farmer without them,” he said.

PHOTO: Farmer Jamey Gage at a SFC Farmers Market

NOTE: This article also appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on October 20, 2017

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