By Jeff Murphy, June 1, 2018
WARRENSBURG, MO – This time of year local farmers markets are buzzing with assortments of different fruits and vegetables that small-scale agriculture producers rely upon annually to make a profit, but often avoiding the introduction of new items and varieties because they don’t want to take a risk. Recipients of a $745,823 federal grant will address multiple questions related to farmers markets in a three-year project that begins this summer.
With leadership provided by two University of Central Missouri faculty members, Mark Goodwin and Anil Giri, the initiative is a joint collaboration between UCM, Powell Gardens, Warrensburg Farmers Market, Sedalia Farmers Market and Agri-Missouri, which represents farmers markets across the state. These organizations are working together to bring to fruition the goals of the grant proposal, “Building Partnerships Between Stakeholders Involved in the Local Production, Marketing and Education of Vegetable Production in Western Missouri.” Funding comes from the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture Institute of Family, Youth and Community, Division of Community and Education, Non Land-Grant Colleges of Agriculture Program. “The idea is to build partnerships to strengthen vegetable production in Western Missouri, and to strengthen recruitment of students to UCM to learn how to grow vegetables,” said Mark Goodwin, associate professor of agriculture at UCM. He co-wrote the grant proposal with Anil Giri, assistant professor of agriculture at UCM.
Giri emphasized that recruitment of students in the agriculture program (specifically minority students), research and education are the three main components of this project. Among its major goals is to build upon educational opportunities that are available to high school, undergraduate and graduate students in Missouri to help increase and diversify the pool of potential producers and workers in Missouri agriculture.
“Mark and I will visit high schools to talk with students. We hope to increase enrollment (in the agriculture program), and increase diversity among agriculture students,” Giri said.
This includes minority, urban and disadvantaged students who typically have limited exposure to agriculture, particularly in regards to the production and marketing of vegetable crops. This lack of exposure to agriculture, Giri said, has hindered opportunities for some students to develop an interest in the field. To help address this issue the grant enables UCM to provide transportation funds to groups of students from high schools across the state of Missouri to tour the university farms and meet with agriculture faculty members who can speak with them about the university’s Agriculture Program and potential careers.
A hands-on component will spark additional interest in agriculture production while also benefiting the other grant partners, and potentially benefiting the state. UCM faculty will reach out to students in biology, agriculture and science areas to participate in a tomato sugar content analysis using sugar refractometers made possible by the grant. In addition, the grant will provide funds for schools to purchase produce at both supermarkets and farmers markets to be used in conducting tests.
“This will help us make better choices about what varieties of fruits and vegetables we might want to use in our trials at Powell Gardens and at the university’s Mitchell Street farm. Obviously, sweeter vegetables are more popular and are more likely to be bought by consumers,” Goodwin said.
He noted that small vendors often shy away from trying new products because they are afraid of the risk involved in procuring something that may be untested in their market. “We are going to take the risk for vendors by figuring out which varieties might be popular or very profitable for them to offer,” Goodwin said. “We are going to provide this information to vendors and show them how they might be able to produce these new varieties in an efficient manner.”
Farmers markets in Warrensburg and Sedalia will help in the collection of data, which will be analyzed by Giri and Goodwin and the results can help their vendors make informed decisions about their produce and how to market them. Through Agri-Missouri this data will be shared statewide. Giri added that data about farmers markets will be collected with Agri-Missouri’s assistance to help understand and address concerns of farmers markets across the state.
“The majority of farmers markets have very little resources so they cannot afford time and personnel to collect and/or conduct any study about their farmers markets,” Giri said. “This grant provides two farmers markets, which are representative of farmers markets across the state, with funds to hire interns so data can be collected, analyzed and disseminated across Missouri, and possibly the nation.”
In assessing the suitability of varieties not widely used in Western Missouri for inclusion in local markets. Produce trials will be conducted at Powell Gardens and in a new high tunnel that will be constructed at the university’s Mitchell Street farm. Giri said the new structure will be built with grant funds and continue to serve as a valuable resource for UCM crop research by students and faculty for many years to come.
In addition to extensive research which involves surveys with farmers markets, vendors and customers, 10 mini grants with a maximum of $2,500 will be available annually throughout the project’s duration, giving faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students an opportunity to seek funding for special research projects related to small-scale agricultural production. Requests for proposals will be announced in fall 2018 with awards to be made soon after for the first year.
Among many student benefits are opportunities for paid internships as student marketing interns with the partnering organizations, which will hire students – not all will be from UCM – via an interview process. This is in addition to stipends for three research graduate assistantships at UCM. Giri said multiple partners have already hired UCM and other university interns for this summer.
The grant proposal calls for UCM to develop and offer two undergraduate-level courses, Commercial Fruit and Vegetable Production in Western Missouri and Distribution and Marketing Agriculture Products in Farmers Markets which will continue to be taught after the project ends.
The educational goal is to strengthen stakeholder partnerships by sharing information between stakeholders, consumers, and other interested parties. Dissemination of research findings to producers, vendors, and farmers market customers will take place via workshops, seminars, web-based, and printed materials.
This was the second year in which UCM applied for USDA funds under this same program, and the first time it was funded. Giri and Goodwin believe it was awarded because of the strong connections made with so many different stakeholders, and the opportunity to benefit all Missouri small-scale agriculture producers.
“The review panel was very excited about the outreach,” Goodwin said in talking about the project’s impact. “It is not one dimensional, but a wide audience that we’re targeting.” Learn more about opportunities in agriculture within UCM’s College of Health, Science and Technology by visiting ucmo.edu/agriculture/.