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Produce to the Max in Jax

Consumer trends and other dish on Jacksonville, Florida

The rapidly growing city of Jacksonville, Florida, is home to a flourishing agricultural industry. Top crops in the region include watermelon, citrus, strawberries, and tomatoes, and much of this produce ends up at the legendary Jacksonville Farmers Market.

Founded in 1938, the Jacksonville Farmers Market is one of the oldest markets in all of Florida. The market has remained on the same site—at 1810 West Beaver Street—for more than three-quarters of a century.

Fresh from the Market
Encompassing a total of nine acres, the Jacksonville Farmers Market features the widest variety of fresh produce available in all of North Florida and southern Georgia. This lively market, open to the public from 6:00 am to 7:00 pm, 365 days a year, serves as a business hub for dozens of area growers and produce wholesalers. The market attracts more than 25,000 shoppers each week.

On any given day, up to 200 farmers and vendors sell (both retail and wholesale) every type of produce imaginable—from locally grown selections to fruits and vegetables from around North America and across the world. Often serving up unique ethnic produce and hard-to-find specialty items, the market’s wholesalers serve as the “secret source” of fresh fruit and vegetables to Jacksonville’s finest restaurants, caterers, suburban produce markets, roadside stands, and other local food venues.

“We have wholesalers that are permanent wholesalers, wholesalers who come in on a seasonal basis, and then farmers who sell off the back of their truck that may be wholesaling,” explains Jeff Edwards, CFO for Beaver Street Fisheries Inc., which owns the market.

Over the past 75 years, the Jacksonville Farmers Market has grown by leaps and bounds and undergone a number of improvements. Beaver Street Fisheries rebuilt the entire structure in 2007, and then purchased some adjacent land. In 2010, the market added a restaurant, Andy’s Farmer’s Market Grill, which is extremely popular with its many visitors.

The owners also have plans to make additional improvements in the coming years. “The market sits on a total of nine acres, and we’ve only fully developed about four of those acres,” points out Edwards. “So we have the potential to double the size of the market.” Part of the market’s undeveloped acreage includes a 28,000-square-foot former grocery store that has been completely gutted. “We haven’t done anything with it yet, but we have some ideas.”

Awesome Advantages
Considering its ideal location, the Jacksonville Farmers Market continues to grow and gain recognition. “I can’t think of a better spot to be geographically because we have everything from tropical climates to cold climates feeding this market,” says Edwards. “We offer mangos from South Florida, apples from North Carolina and Virginia, sweet potatoes, melons—we have everything.”

To top it off, the Jacksonville market has a unique advantage. Most markets are owned by federal or state governments, but Jacksonville is owned by Beaver Street Fisheries, a private entity. “This is not your traditional farmers market by today’s standards,” says Edwards. “We run this as a community service,” he adds, “on a free market basis with as few restrictions as possible.”

The Latest Trends
Produce professionals on the Jacksonville market and throughout Florida have noticed quite a few interesting trends in recent years.

Florida produce businesses have seen a continuing upward trend in organics. “I’ve noticed there are more players in organics, so I would assume demand is going up,” says Ely Trujillo, president/sales for Superior Growers, LLC, a produce grower-shipper and broker. A recent study by the University of Florida cited organics as one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture in the Sunshine State. In 2011, Florida farmers grew more than 15,000 acres of certified organic fruit and nearly 4,600 acres of organic vegetables.

“We get calls all the time for organics, and we have an organic vendor who sells on the market once a week,” says Edwards. “The problem is that everybody wants organic until they see how much it costs.” But, he concedes, it can be difficult “to find the volume to sustain a seven-day-a-week operation.”

Ethnic & Specialty Produce
Thanks to Jacksonville’s increasingly diverse population, ethnic produce sales are also on the rise in the region. Between the years of 2000 and 2011, Duval County’s Hispanic and Asian population more than doubled. Today, Hispanics make up more than 7.6 percent of the county’s population.

“We offer all kinds of Asian and Hispanic items,” says Edwards. Vendors sell a variety of mango—the Honey or Champagne mango—from Mexico that’s extremely popular with the Hispanic population. “We sell truckloads of that,” he says.

Because Jacksonville has a strong “foodie” movement, the market’s vendors also sell plenty of specialty produce. “We sell a lot of what I call ‘soul food,’ like greens grown fresh in this area,” Edwards explains. “We have vendors who sell nothing but greens.”

The market also stocks heirloom vegetables and hard-to-find peach varieties not found in most stores. The market also sells a yellow-fleshed watermelon, which has proven to be quite popular. “A Georgia farmer brought it here,” notes Edwards, “and he couldn’t keep it in stock.”

Locally Grown
Like many other regions across the nation, the “Buy Local” trend has exploded in Jacksonville. Edwards says the Jacksonville Farmers Market carries and sells more local produce than any other market in the vicinity. “If it’s grown in Florida, Georgia, or South Carolina, we definitely have it,” he says.