State program benefits farmers and low-income families<BR>

Although the local Farmer's Market doesn't kick off until May, local farmers wanting to participate in a new state program that can boost their seasonal sales and expand their markets must begin planting seeds now.

Last year, the state piloted the new program – the Arizona Farmer's Market Nutrition Program – at about a dozen farmers' markets, including the one in downtown Prescott. This year, the state hopes to expand the program to a total of about 26 markets, including Cottonwood, explained Rick Harris, statewide manager of the program.

Basically, the program distributes coupons to people who are receiving WIC (Women Infants & Children) assistance from the state. The people – most of them young families – can then use those coupons to buy fresh produce at the local farmers' market. The farmers, in turn, simply redeem the coupons to their bank as if they were depositing a check.

Harris recently met with local county officials and farmers to get everybody on the same page for this year's program.

Last year, about 45 farmers across the state participated in the pilot program, which distributed about $71,000 worth of coupons to 7,400 people, Harris said. This year, the program hopes to sign on about 60 farmers, as well as expand the number of people receiving coupons.

"We are looking for more people to serve, who want this free food," explained Terry Scrogham.

Scrogham, whom Harris recently appointed as Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) coordinator for the Yavapai County Health Department, took over for Jodi Herod, who has retired.

As part of the expansion of their services this year, the CSFP and the Farmers' Market Nutrition Program hope to sign up 1,000 more local households of senior citizens, postpartum mothers and young children to receive free food. While the Farmers' Market program provides people with locally grown produce, the CSFP provides monthly boxes of food to qualifying families.

According to Peter Schlichting, who is the nutrition director for the Yavapai County Health Department, the Farmers' Market program is a win-win situation for both farmers and program participants. Not only do the participants get free access to a source of fresh produce that they might not otherwise consider, but the farmers also benefit by expanding the demographics of their market and increasing their weekly sales.

"The people who live and work here – the farmers – get the direct benefit," Schlichting said.

Of the 25 to 30 vendors who regularly participated in the Prescott Farmers' Market last year, about a dozen were signed up with the pilot program, said Shanti Leinow, who is the manager of the local market. As the season progressed, and non-participating farmers saw that the ones who were participating were pulling in a couple of hundred dollars per week in coupons, they became much more interested, Leinow explained.

Cory Rade, a Chino Valley farmer who participated in the pilot program, said that the coupon sales, in a good week, could account for up to 25 percent of his total weekly sales, which can be enough to "make or break" a farmer.

"It rounded my market out quite a bit," Rade said, adding that more younger families bought produce from him as a result of the coupons.

In addition, he said that the program's paperwork and regulatory hoops were "minimal" and redeeming the coupons was as easy as cashing a check. "It was all good," he said of the program.

Although the program provides only one $20 coupon booklet each season to each qualifying individual – or a total of three booklets per household – both Rade and Leinow said that the benefits stretched beyond the monetary amount because it brought new people to the Farmers' Market and opened their eyes to a new venue for buying food. After using up their coupons, many people continued coming to the market and buying food with their own money, Leinow said.

This year, Harris explained, the program will receive $303,000 in federal money and $130,000 in matching dollars from Arizona's Proposition 204 tobacco settlement money. About 60 percent of that money will go directly to farmers, in the form of coupons, while about 40 percent goes to cover administrative expenses, he said. Although state legislators could cut funding to the program next year, they cannot touch it this year, he said. "This is a go program."

Local farmers who are interested in participating in the program must first be a part of the Prescott Farmers' Market. A seasonal membership costs $35, or they can go week-to-week for $5 per week.

They also must attend a brief training program. The next training session will take place Feb. 24 at Young's Farm. Any farmers interested in participating should contact Leinow at 713-1227. The training, Rade explained, is "really simple and stream-lined ."

Senior citizens or families who think that they may qualify to receive assistance through the program should contact Scrogham at 771-3138.

Contact Chad Simpson at csimpson@prescottaz.com or 445-8179, ext. 2041.