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The Hernando Farmers Market has been recognized as Mississippi's Favorite Farmers Market and one of the best in the nation. In addition to produce vendors, it offers a wide variety of events and activities and attracts over 100,000 visitors each year.

When most people imagine a farmers market, images of a handful of vendors selling a few fruits and vegetables may come to mind, but one farmers market in DeSoto County has slowly been rising above the rest. 

The Hernando Farmers Market is currently voted Mississippi's Favorite Farmers Market and the 23rd Most Celebrated Market in the Nation by the American Farmland Trust, a national organization that advocates for farmers. Hernando's market is also recognized with the Farmers Market Coalition, another national organization that advocates for farmers, farmers' markets and local foods.

The market, held each Saturday in the historic Hernando Courthouse Square, runs from the end of April through October every Saturday between 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Having started in 2007 as a collaboration between the city and community advocates who saw the value in offering local foods and opportunities for local farmers to make a living, it has grown into a popular pastime for those in Hernando and the surrounding area. Hernando's Community Development Director Gia Matheny estimates that over 100,000 shoppers come to the market each year.

"We offer pretty much everything," Matheny said. "We pride ourselves in our farmers market being an agriculturally-based market. We are a Mississippi-certified farmers market recognized by the Department of Agriculture and Commerce. You can get pretty much most everything that you can get a grocery store, except you can take your entire family shopping and have a day out. It's a really fun place to spend time with your family."

To be certified by the Department of Agriculture, the market must show each year that more than 50 percent of its vendors grow or produce their items locally in the state of Mississippi. Hernando's market doesn't allow resale, meaning that vendors cannot buy an item for cheap from a wholesaler or another state and turn around and sell it at the market. To uphold the integrity of the market, farmers must sign affidavits that state that they are truly the ones growing the products that are being sold and the city has recently started conducting farm visits.

"I went out to quite a few farms just recently to make sure that the items that they are selling are really what they're growing," Matheny said. "We've been fortunate to have really honest farmers, and so now we can say for sure that what the people are buying really is being grown here in Mississippi. We encourage backyard farming for people who might have a larger backyard and they want to grow it in their backyard."

Matheny explained that one of the major reasons that farmers markets are so vital is that they oftentimes offer fresher food to residents.

"Most of the time, food is being brought in over 200 to 2,000 miles before it gets to your grocery store, where here we have an average of 27 miles from farm to consumer," Matheny said. "So you know that it's local and you know that it's fresh when you get it. All of the fruits and vegetables of the season have been so sweet and ripe. It's so different when you can get something fresh picked… You get things that are picked the morning of the market."

Matheny describes the Hernando market as "an old-fashioned farmers market with a modern twist" and believes that the opportunity to build relationships with vendors is one of the many reasons the market is an asset to the community.

"You can really start to build relationships with the farmers that you come to see each week," Matheny said. "We assign spaces. Not all farmers markets do that. They just let their farmers set up, but we assign a space that we reserve for the farmer and the vendor. The consumer comes back and they know who they want to buy [from], because they build that relationship and [know] which foods they like the most."

The market also supports entrepreneurship among farmers.

"Our farmers hand pick, they're not commercial farmers, so we give them an outlet to be able to sell their product," Matheny said.

Some of the many products that can be found at the Hernando market include Brown Dairy Farms milk and meat from ground beef to steaks to pot roasts, local honey, cage-free eggs and over 80 varieties of produce from wheatgrass to zucchini, squash and tomatoes. Nick's Fried Pies and Lemonade is also a popular vendor. Seventeen new vendors have moved into the market this year alone.

In addition to vendors, Hernando's market also offers a variety of activities for the whole family to enjoy. Matheny said that there is always something fun and new to do at the market.

"It's not just shopping for food," Matheny said. "It's about the social, the mental and the physical aspects at our market. Hernando is recognized for its efforts in promoting health for its citizens, and the Hernando Farmers Market is one of those ways that we give back to the health of our citizens. It not only touches foods, but you're also looking at a social and a mental aspect being out there. It's a really great experience from the very young to the very old. Everyone can participate."

Visitors to the market can walk and shop the beautiful grounds or sit down and have a cup of coffee at the cafe. The market also provides free yoga, fitness classes, cooking demonstrations and performances by local entertainers, and a dietician is set to come speak soon. Other notable events that the Hernando market has offered include the Memphis Ukulele Flash Mob and Disney character Elsa singing to the children in attendance.

Here, children are encouraged to both eat healthy and exercise at an early age. The last Saturday of each month is Children's Day in which kids can earn $5 POP (Power of Produce) bucks from participating in different activities and can spend the money at any of the produce vendors.

"It teaches the value of a dollar and also allows a child to buy their favorite fruit or vegetable," Matheny said. "It helps the child become more empowered, and they take ownership of that item and they take it home and want to eat it. So now they want to come back to the market and buy more healthy foods."

The first Saturday of each month is Senior Day. Seniors have received free paint pottery in the past and will have the opportunity to take part in free canvas painting next month.

The market will partner with Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto and others to teach moms with young children and moms-to-be about breastfeeding during Breastfeeding Awareness Month in August. A Babies' Day is also planned.

In September, the Multiple Sclerosis 150-Mile Bike Ride will make a stop to have lunch at the market.

The market also offers a token system for shoppers who use credit cards. Shoppers may use their credit cards at the market's main table and receive $5 tokens to use at any vendor.

"Over the course of time, we've had so many people that are first-time shoppers," Matheny said. "We even have some people that are from other parts of DeSoto County that might have never made a trip to the market and come out for the first time and think 'Oh my gosh, I thought you were like a farmers' stand.' Last weekend, we had 50 vendors. They have no idea how many people we have at our market, and they run out of cash. There's no ATM on site, so we made an effort to go ahead and start accepting credit cards."

Low-income shoppers using food stamps may also redeem the electronic benefits on their EBT cards to purchase produce and can even double their benefits to buy more fruits and vegetables.

Matheny said that Hernando received a USDA Farmers Market grant last year, which will provide nearly $200,000 for education and community outreach to attract even more visitors to the market, which has been a benefit to both the city and consumers.

Matheny encourages all to come and visit the market this weekend. DeSoto County Supervisor Lee Caldwell will open the market with the ringing of the bell at 8 a.m. Free yoga will also begin at 8 a.m. At 9 a.m., Chef Christian Carmichael from AC's Steakhouse will provide a seafood dish cooking demonstration and Beverage Chef Arvie Derrick will prepare non-alcoholic cocktails. Local musician Ryan Spooner will perform around 10 a.m. The Mayor's Youth Council will also be on hand to conduct a traffic count study, and stickers will be given to shoppers to keep track of the number of participants.

Brent Walker is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.

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