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Culture Watch: Farmers Market reaps benefits beyond local produce

An innovative token system has reshaped buying trends at the Crescent City Farmers Market.

It’s always nice when a local guy gets recognized outside New Orleans for a job well done. So it’s particularly pleasing to learn that the glossy regional magazine Southern Living has told the world about the Crescent City Farmers Market and its executive director, Richard McCarthy. Naming him a “2012 Hero of the New South,” Richard is one of a small group of Southerners honored for their efforts as “keepers of our culture.”

In Richard’s case, the aspect of Southern culture that’s caught his passion is the historic tradition of moving locally grown food from the fields and the waterways to everyone’s kitchen tables. While it’s exactly what a farmers market is supposed to do, along the way something unexpected happened to that simple concept.

“The Crescent City Farmers Market became more than just a market,” Richard says. “It became a meeting place where more than goods and services were exchanged; a place where city people could learn more about where foods come from and farmers could learn more about selling and what buyers want.”

Now in its 16th year, CCFM has expanded beyond its original single mission of simply presenting fresh, locally grown produce. It has become a nationally recognized enterprise with a unique model that has a $10 million economic impact upon the region.

Richard McCarthy: Named a 2012 Hero of the New South by Southern Living

Over the past decade, Richard has blended CCFM’s three local weekly farmers markets into a more comprehensive non-profit organization called Through it, he has assisted in the launching of more than 30 similar markets across the South. And that has resulted in becoming an internationally recognized mentor not only for farmers’ markets, but also for community-building and sustainable economic development. One Southern Living juror called, with its annual operating budget of $750,000 and a staff of seven, “one of the most innovative and catalytic farmers’ market efforts in the U.S.”

Among those innovations is the creative implementation of a unique cash-token system that Richard says “breaks down barriers, particularly between haves and have-nots who are shopping.”

Discovering that market shoppers usually came with a set amount of cash to spend and that farmers did not have the capacity to alter that dynamic, he created a different economic model through the use of a centralized credit card system.

“We realized early on that when people were out of cash, they were out of the market,” he recalls. So rather than have people leave the market, Richard devised a way of accepting credit and debit cards in exchange for wooden coins that then could be spent with vendors who then traded them back for cash.

“We sort of became alchemists who could turn plastic into wood,” Richard says with a laugh.

The farmers and vendors, many of whom would admit that they could hardly be called high-tech folk, caught on immediately.

“They would tell customers who said they didn’t have any more money in their pockets, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll hold those beets for you because those folk over there can turn your plastic into wood,’” Richard explains. “That’s when people really began to do real shopping, turning the market from a special event sort of place into an integral part of their shopping pattern.”

For more information on and on the farmers markets in our area, click here.

Sharon Litwin is president of Nolavie.


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