ALMA – The Alma Farmers Market is enjoying a homecoming of sorts this year as it makes its return to the Berry Shed after last season’s stint on Highway 71.

In an effort to avoid possible construction on Main Street as part of the city’s streetscape project, the farmers market moved to a vacant lot between Geno’s Pizza and the Valero gas station. The lot offered neither cover nor electricity, so vendors and customers alike should enjoy a return to the Berry Shed.

“We moved last year because this street was supposed to be torn up,” Alma Area Chamber of Commerce Director Marilyn Sneed said from her office inside the red caboose on Main Street. “We had a lot more street traffic on Highway 71 than we do right here, but it was scorching hot and this is such a beautiful facility.”

She added that bringing the market back to the downtown area just feels right.

“The great thing about the farmers market is it is key to downtown revitalization,” she said. “It plays a big part as a community hub bringing people back to downtown. It’s a really beautiful facility and part of Alma’s heritage.”

The shed offers restroom facilities, electricity and cover and ample parking inside the split-rail fence that borders the property.

“We can easily accommodate over 20 vendors under the roof,” said Sneed, who was asked to head up operations of the farmers market in 2017 when she became a chamber board member before transitioning to director.

Even though she loves working with the farmers market, she is in the process of turning the work over to another person as she steps away from her role with the chamber.

“I love (the farmers market), but it’s every weekend for six months and I’ve done that for two years,” she said. “I want a break and I do have a little hobby farm. Last year I didn’t get to work on it at all. I want to stay involved, but just let somebody else have a turn driving the bus.”

Krissy Walker, a vendor who has been with the market for two seasons, has agreed to take on leadership of the market. Sneed will continue to help while the baton is being passed to Walker.

“One of my favorite things about the market is that it’s essentially pop up retail,” said Sneed. “Krissy wants to someday have her own bakery and this experience will certainly help her.”

The market will open for business the first Saturday in May and run through the last Saturday in October from 8 a.m. to noon each Saturday.

“We probably have applications from 30 different vendors, but we’ve never had 30 vendors except for our Harvest Market,” said Sneed. “Realistically, May is very small because no one has produce yet and usually about Labor Day it dwindles off as well. During our peak season last year we probably had 15 vendors show up and that’s because everybody had tomatoes and everything was going well.”

Sneed said the market strictly adheres to the state’s guidelines for farmers markets and what the vendors can and can’t sell.

“Those guidelines are created by the Department of Agriculture and the Health Department,” she said. “Vendors can’t sell anything that has cheese in it, eggs have to be temperature controlled and marked a certain way, labels have to have specific information to protect the consumer. We’ll have vendors that sell baked goods, farm-raised eggs, produce and hand-crafted items, basically anything that’s protected by the Arkansas cottage laws.”

She added, “We have several produce vendors and we try to have more produce vendors than craft vendors. We try to keep a 2-1 ratio so it doesn’t turn into just a craft fair every weekend.”

Other items that have been sold in the past at the farmers market, and should be making a return this year, include fibers, baked goods, produce, goat’s milk soap and honey.

Sneed said while the vendors will be in place, the market’s success will be determined by the community’s level of participation.

“We’ve had very dedicated vendors but, honestly, our town needs to step up and make sure they’re supporting the vendors, otherwise it’s going to go away,” she said. “I am counting on our community to invest in downtown. I am looking forward to the downtown revitalization that’s coming with the streetscape and with renewed interest and with the people that have made commitments with Kickstart Alma. There was a whole group of people whose main focus was downtown Alma. I think it’s important to the mayor as well.”

Plus it’s an opportunity for vendors to grow their business without having to face the expenses of renting or buying their own building.

“The farmers market is a chance for vendors to have a business without a brick and mortar store,” Sneed said. “Someday, if our community supports them and they can continue to invest in their business, then they could actually create job opportunities for people in our community, not to mention the tax revenue that their business would bring in.”

One benefit the Alma market holds over other farmers markets is the fact it accepts SNAP benefits as well as EBT cards.

“The great thing about this program is that I’ve signed us up for a grant with the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention and they have a program called Double Up Food Bucks,” Sneed added. “Food products can be charged on the EBT card, but with Double Up Food Bucks if they spend, say, $3 on their EBT card they get $3 that they can spend on any food item, plus they get three different colored tokens that they can use to spend on fruits and vegetables. So it really is a great benefit for families because their benefits go twice as far at the farmers market.”

The vendors will be well versed in the program and will be able to help customers through the Double Up Food Bucks system if they’re not familiar with the process.

It’s just another way the Alma Farmers Market is trying to make the transactions between vendor and customer a more positive and enjoyable experience.

“I love people having face-to-face interaction,” Sneed said. “I think it’s great to be reminded where we get our food and to purchase it from the person who actually grew it. But just establishing community I think is my favorite part. I love to help people pursue their dreams and this is a place where entrepreneurs can try to pursue their dreams.”

She added, “I wouldn’t call (the market) a success yet, but it does have a lot of potential. And if the community will get behind the farmers market then I think the potential is great. I think that’s our biggest challenge.”