August 17, 2008

Local Flavor – Demand Strong for Homegrown — Truck Farmers Sell Produce Fresh From Field

By C Richard Cotton

BOLIVAR, Tenn. - The okra plants were barely waist-high but they were full of the succulent green pods Seesun Vu sought. He made his way between two rows of the plants, filling a five-gallon bucket as he went.

The vegetables, and many other varieties growing in the 20-acre field, would find their way to the Bolivar Farmers Market and a similar market in Jackson. In these days of consumers' growing interest in eating locally grown produce, Vu and other truck farmers are harvesting a profit from their efforts.

Vu and nearly a dozen other Laotians have settled in Hardeman County to grow vegetables and, in at least one case, flowers for an appreciative clientele. Many of their goods are sold at the Downtown Memphis Farmers Market and the Agricenter market.

"In farming," Vu said during a break from his picking, "you work from sunup to sundown. I have no choice."

At his Bolivar market stand, Vu and his wife, Maylo, displayed neat rows of top-grade vegetables in plastic bowls and stacks of watermelons: four bell peppers were listed for $2, while a half bushel of purple-hull peas was $5.

Next door, fellow Laotian immigrant Yia (pronounced yee) Lor offered similar produce at similar prices, though he also showed pans of already shelled peas and beans priced $4-$5 per pound.

"Last year," said Lor, "we overgrew so we didn't sell as much as we grew. This year we cut back a little bit."

Vu reported that he once planted 10,000 tomato plants, ending up with so many tomatoes he couldn't sell them all. He recently planted a second, late-summer tomato crop, comprising a much more manageable 360 plants. Marketing is not only about selling, but about having adequate supply to fill demand without producing more than needed to satisfy that demand.

Lor and brothers Zong and Choa Lor help their father, Lor Naoher, farm two patches totaling about 80 acres in the southern part of the county.

Looking at their products and at Vu's truck patch, their prowess in agriculture is evident. Surely they would prefer to graduate to supplying stores and brokers with their produce, right?

Not necessarily. First, according to Hardeman County extension agent Lee Sammons, the Laotian farmers "prefer direct marketing."

While supplying stores like Wal-Mart, which recently announced it would try to buy more locally grown produce, might seem a surefire road to riches, it's a rocky road that sometimes comes with a high toll charged.

"We've not seen that policy instituted at Wal-Mart," Bob Vickers said of the chain's local-produce procurement pledge. The county extension director for the University of Tennessee and Tennessee State University Extension Service says Vu, Lor and other Laotian farmers, as well as non-immigrant producers, are discouraged from pursuing contracts with Wal-Mart because "they cannot supply all year" and because the chain demands its vendors be covered by $2 million in liability insurance.

Joe Dolan, manager of the Bolivar Farmers Market, said sellers pay $5 per day (or discounted rates for longer periods) to set up a stall, fees that don't require liability insurance.

Vu invests at least $6,000 per year in seed, fertilizer, pesticide, fuel and other expenses to make his crops; he did not divulge how much money is made on the produce sales.

Farther south in Middleton, Sue Her and his wife, See Moua, have apparently found the proverbial bed of roses in a 5-acre patch of flowers. Surrounded by dahlias, zinnias and sunflowers, Her raises about 30 varieties of flowers from spring through fall's first frost.

"I sell at Nashville and Memphis farmers markets," Her said. He also sells out of a temporary stand at Third and Jefferson on days the Memphis market is closed. Her, too, eschews supplying stores or even florists, preferring instead to market directly to the public.

He sells bouquets for $15-$30, with some arrangements for churches and other placements rising to $100 or more. On a good day at the Memphis Farmers Market, Her and Moua sell hundreds of bouquets, making them onsite; they said business of late has been especially good, with customers lining up to buy. Her said they've worked to exhaustion the past few markets.

"It's all right," he said with a grin.



Truck farmers and farmers markets were made for each other. The markets exist because truck farmers bring their produce to them and customers, in turn, show up to buy fresh produce.

Lee Sammons, county extension agent for the UT and TSU County Extension Service in Hardeman County, said the Brownsville Farmers Market has been a win-win for both the farmers seeking a marketplace and the public seeking fresh vegetables.

Nationwide scares of salmonella, E. coli and other food-borne diseases are virtually unknown in locally grown produce.

Bob Vickers, county extension director for the service, said the city of Bolivar got behind the construction of the 3,200-square- foot market near the city center because "it wanted to cut down on the number of street vendors" selling out of pickup trucks around town.

Bolivar Downtown Development's director, Jerry Watkins, said the $215,000 open-air, post-and-beam structure of huge Douglas fir timbers was financed from various sources, including a number of grants.

Originally published by C. Richard Cotton Special to The Commercial Appeal .

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