With the closure of International Paper's local mill and overall economic conditions, manager Don Costin said he expected business to slow down at the Morehouse Parish Farmers Market.
To his surprise, however, more customers than ever before are coming for the homegrown produce.
“When they come, they all come at one time,” he said. “We never thought it would be this good.”
Costin estimates roughly 300 customers have been stopping by the market this summer, and not even the recent heat wave has held back the tide.
“We can tell how many customers by how many tomatoes we sell – the tables get real empty in the evenings,” he said.
Business received an additional boost from recent coverage of the market's success by an area news outlet.
“I didn't see it, but people were coming in and telling me about it,” said Costin. Immediately after the broadcast, “We had a big day. We sold more than we have since I've been here.”
Like the Bastrop Visitor Center and the Historic Bastrop High School, the market on East Madison Avenue began as a Bastrop Main Street project with funding assistance from the USDA and state. The Morehouse Parish Police Jury entered a lease agreement with Costin, former owner of Mer Rouge Road Produce Market in Bastrop, in 2008. Two years later, the market was one of just two in Louisiana to receive USDA funding to purchase a pea sheller and pecan cracker, making things more efficient for customers.
“The market had a lot of problems when I got here, but it's been picking up,” he said. “ I have the support of the police jury, and [trustees] to help keep the place clean. I take suggestions from the public, and they've been real good. We just all work together.”
Since ancient times, farmers markets have provided a means for growers to connect with local consumers. Costin buys produce from -- or rents tables to -- growers from Morehouse, Union, Ouachita, Richland and West Carroll parishes. This summer's offerings include plums, peaches, cucumbers, green beans, squash, watermelons and assorted preserves, jellies and Louisiana-produced honey.
“We only sell Louisiana-grown produce,” said Costin. “That's what a farmers market is, fresh and local produce.”
Right now, he said, people are virtually “begging” for the market's okra.
The market accepts coupons from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry's Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, in which a certain number of senior citizens in each parish are issued a booklet of coupons to purchase fresh vegetables, fruits, cut herbs and honey from approved farmers markets in the state.
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Morehouse Council on Aging director Reggie DeFreese said 220 Morehouse residents were issued the coupons this year, after which the state requested a waiting list from the Council.
“We're kind of the middle person who checks to see if [applicants] are eligible,” said DeFreese. “It's been an ongoing program of the ag department for several years.”
Costin has been contacted by the state with questions about what has made the Morehouse market so successful. Aside from hard work and fresh, homegrown produce, it's hard to say why business has seemed to improve with the passing of each year.
“I'm doing twice as much business as last summer,” he said. “It's just better this year.”