Direct marketing of vegetables helps Conventional wisdom holds that buying produce at a farmers' market is better than getting it from the grocery store, and a University of Florida agriculture expert says that's true - for consumers and growers alike.

Consumers win because they can purchase fresher vegetables at a lower cost than they could at the supermarket, said Mickie Swisher, an associate professor of sustainable agriculture with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Science. The plus for farmers is that they can get better prices for their produce than they can when they sell through grocery stores, she said.

"One of the main problems that small farmers have is how to sell what they grow and make money selling what they grow," Swisher said. "Farmers' markets are a good way to do that.

"And farmers' markets are good for consumers because they're a great source of a wide variety of locally grown, really fresh food," she said.

The markets, usually set up in a central location in the community, feature area farmers selling their bounty from tables or directly from the back of their pickup trucks. Swisher said the markets are a good option for operators of small farms that normally can't meet the needs of modern grocery stores.

Swisher said the United States Department of Agriculture classifies a small farm as one with annual sales of less than $250,000.

"In general, small farms don't have the quantity of produce or the year-round production that a supermarket chain would be looking for," Swisher said. "Some grocery stores do buy some local produce, but it depends on the location and the store manager.

"The fact is, most grocery stores buy their produce in very large amounts and they buy through a central purchasing point," she said.

Since small farm owners generally are shut out of the larger markets, Swisher said, they are left trying to find new ways to get their products directly into the hands of the consumers. Traditional methods include farmers' markets, "u-pick" fields and roadside produce stands.

But another method of putting farmer and consumer together is beginning to gain in popularity. Called either community supported agriculture or subscription farming, the method allows families to pay a farmer in advance for up to a year's worth of produce. The practice was first developed in Switzerland and Japan in the 1960s and was introduced in the United States in the 1980s.

"Farms in urban areas are moving towards small-scale operations that concentrate on dealing directly with the consumer," said Rose Koenig, who owns Rosie's Organic Farm and grows organic vegetables, cut flowers and herbs on 17 acres just south of Gainesville. "Our farm uses a system called community supported agriculture, which is a subscription-type agriculture where people can buy a year's worth of produce."

Koenig said her farm currently has 70 families participating in the program that share in the farm's output of 20 to 25 different types of vegetables over the course of the growing season. For example, a share of the produce from Koenig's farm costs $400 and provides 10 to 12 pounds of organically grown produce every week for 35 weeks. According to Koenig, that should feed a non-vegetarian family of four.

She said it is important for the small farmer to offer some unique product or service. "You have to develop your specialty or niche and offer the consumer something - be it freshness or better price or organically grown vegetables - that may not be available at the food stores," Koenig said.

Swisher also said small farms provide important services to their communities in terms of food production and environmental protection.

"A lot of the land on the fringes of our communities is in small farms," Swisher said. "The farms are protecting green space for us.

"When farmers use good management practices, they protect the quality of the water that goes into the aquifer and they provide habitat for wildlife."

Swisher said small farms hold about 15 percent of the total market, even though in terms of numbers of farms they comprise a majority of Florida farms.

"When most people think of agriculture in Florida, they think of large farms - we're known as a large-scale agriculture state," Swisher said. "And that's mostly true, a lot of Florida produce does come off of large farms.

"But most people don't know that more than 90 percent of farms in the state of Florida are actually small farms," she added.

Cotton producers, ginners and textile manufacturer will discuss how certain agronomic practices and processing techniques can maximize fiber quality in a panel discussion at the 2001 Beltwide Cotton Production Conference, Jan. 10-11.

Moderated by Alabama producer Jimmy Sanford, the panel will talk about how to fine-tune cultural practices, including with what Mother Nature deals out, to turn out optimal fiber quality.

Panelists also will talk about what field research is needed to help industry members improve and preserve quality.

"We want to encourage a discussion about varietal affect on achieving good yields and fiber quality, what ginning procedures help preserve fiber quality and is there any spinning technology in the pipeline that is more forgiving of natural fibers," said NCC's Anne Wrona, who serves as program coordinator.

Serving on the panel will be producers Wiley Murphy, Tucson, Ariz.; Eddie Smith, Floydada, Texas; Larry McClendon, Marianna, Ark.; Louie Perry, Jr., Moultrie, Ga.; ginners Michael Hooper, Buttonwillow, Calif.; and Van Murphy, Quitman, Ga.; manufacturer, Harding Stowe, Belmont, N.C.; and USDA researcher David McAlister, Clemson, S.C.

For more information about Beltwide Cotton Conferences, Jan. 9-13, Anaheim, CA, visit www.cotton.org/beltwide or call NCC's Debbie Richter, (901) 274-9030.