Columbia’s Agriculture Park spreads its wings
At 8 o’clock on Saturday mornings, the bell rings and shoppers pour into the Columbia Farmers Market. The vendors are behind their counters, stacked high with a cornucopia of fresh vegetables, fruits and homemade foods. Shoppers and their families beeline it to their favorite vendors then begin milling around, chatting among themselves and with the farmers and artisans. Similar scenes can be found in the nearly 200 farmers markets held throughout Missouri. But there is more -— much more — to the Columbia Farmers Market scene than meets the eye.
The market, which is sheltered beneath the MU Health Care Pavilion, is the most visible part of a many-layered community project, Columbia’s Agriculture Park. Although everyone recognizes a farmers market when they see one, the features of the Agriculture Park aren’t as familiar. It takes a leisurely stroll to take in its many facets. One thing visitors can’t miss are the vegetables growing in neat rows in the acre field in front of the pavilion. There’s a playground, a greenhouse on the side of a storage barn, a one-room schoolhouse, arbors, gravel walking trails that lead through lush native plantings, an outdoor classroom area, a food forest and a stormwater retention area. It’s a lot to take in, not to mention the pavilion, which will cover 34,900 square feet when finished later this year.
But the most important part of the Agriculture Park is its roots, which spread from its site on the corner of Ash Street and West Boulevard throughout a 50-mile radius of farms and small towns. Adam Saunders, chief fundraiser for the park and co-founder of the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture (CCUA) has helped nurture those roots and build the community of organizations that supports the park’s mission. “Columbia’s Agriculture Park is designed to promote a healthy lifestyle and an appreciation of nature and agriculture,” he says. “Also, we aim to boost the economies of rural Missouri.”
Farmers who sell at the market go back home with money from Columbia shoppers. “Those dollars that they make here circulate in their economies — that’s $2 million to $3 million dollars each year of sales, and it will only continue growing,” Adam adds.
Bill Strope, a farmer from Linn and a member of Three Rivers Electric Cooperative, has been selling flowers and vegetables at the Columbia Farmers Market for more than five years. “With the new park, I’ve noticed more people and more vendors. This is a pretty big source of revenue for our business,” he says.
The idea for the Agriculture Park was born seven years ago. Fueled by $7.2 million of donations, the project is now nearing completion. The last bit of fundraising will put the finishing touch on the project in the next few years, with the construction of a commercial teaching kitchen and event space. Already, the site has become a popular mid-Missouri attraction and a model for the nation, showing that growers and artisans can get together with government agencies, nonprofits and private donors to create a vibrant gathering space that is good for the community that supports it as well as for the surrounding counties.
“When other major leaders of farmers markets hear about what’s happening in Columbia, they are dazzled,” says Darlene Wolnik of the Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit group which supports the growth of farmers markets throughout the U.S.
On most Saturdays, a crowd of about 4,000 people come to the market for their weekly produce or other foods. But unlike a trip to the grocery store, a visit to the Columbia Farmers Market is a festive, family-friendly event. “Once you understand how cool it is to shop at a farmers market and to be able to interact with the producers, most people tend to fall in love with it,” says Corrina Smith, executive director of Columbia Farmers Market. “It becomes a regular activity for them,” she adds.