In researching how to accept debit cards for his locally grown beef, Alabama farmer Justin Barrett found MarketLink, a USDA program that provides farmers with equipment needed to accept credit and debit payments and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program electronic benefit transfers.

“By accepting credit and SNAP cards, we’ll be able to sell our beef to a bigger market. This USDA program will make that process a lot easier, smoother and cheaper for farmers,” said Barrett, who with partner Garrett Henry want to market farm-raised beef through a new company, River Region Beef LLC.

Farmers packed the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries auditorium March 27 to learn more about the MarketLink program and start the application process.

Through the program, eligible farmers may sign a three-year contract to receive a free iPhone 5, card reader and wireless printer, along with a two-year wireless data service and free merchant processing for a year.

Chilton County farmer Jimmie Harrison wanted to find out how he could use the program at his produce stand. “We already take the Farmers Market Nutrition Program coupons, but we’re interested in accepting credit, debit and SNAP,” Harrison said. “People don’t use cash anymore. I think this would be very beneficial for our business.”

According to a report from Washington State University, Harrison is right. Researchers found that at farmers markets accepting electronic forms of payment, only 6 percent of sales were in cash. The report also stated the average electronic sale was $34.57.

State government officials said the program is a win-win for farmers and consumers, but the main goal is to increase the healthy options available to SNAP recipients.

“This is very important because we want to promote nutritious food for all our recipients,” said Brandon Hardin, Alabama’s SNAP director. “The partnership between USDA, Farmers Market Authority and SNAP is a great opportunity to increase access, especially in rural communities, to healthy fruits and vegetables.”