MICHIGAN – As part of embracing “One USDA” and expanding upon “good neighbor” outreach, Hiawatha National Forest added farmers’ markets to its community outreach efforts. This growing season, the forest is making fourteen visits to farmers’ markets in seven locations.
The forest was looking for opportunities to increase its community outreach to connect with members of the local community who don’t already attend Hiawatha’s open houses, education programs and events.
According to Janel Crooks, Hiawatha public affairs officer, the forest’s first visit to a farmers’ market happened by accident in late summer of 2018. “We were about to head home from a modestly-attended Forest Service open house in a nearby community, when I remembered that it was farmers’ market day, and I knew there would be more people there than had attended our open house,” said Crooks.
On that hunch, she and several Hiawatha employees stopped by and walked through the market, seeing hundreds of people in a very short time. “It was instantly clear that attending farmers’ markets would be a great way to expand our outreach while also supporting the United States Department of Agriculture’s rural development mission in our local communities,” said Forest Supervisor Cid Morgan.
For 2019, the forest planned an ambitious schedule, spreading outreach events across seven farmers’ markets located nearby. The schedule was designed to spread the workload across all Hiawatha offices utilizing employees with a variety of specialties. Forest personnel are bringing a variety of information to the markets, with topics such as Smokey Bear’s 75th Birthday, fire management, volunteer opportunities, non-native invasive species, recreation opportunities, upcoming projects and more.
“The idea was to foster more dialogue with our customers by featuring different mission-related topics or specific local issues according to the expertise of the employees hosting each booth.” said Crooks.
Based on positive responses from the public and farmers’ market managers, the approach seems to be productive. For example, at a farmers’ market where Hiawatha recreation staff featured recreation information, many people asked questions and were appreciative of the maps and QR codes forest staff provided. At another market, forest ecosystems staff had excellent conversations with youth and adults (including a county road commissioner) about invasive species and how to manage them.
At a recent farmers’ market Forest Service staff highlighted Smokey’s 75th and Smokey Bear was a popular attraction for people of all ages.
With the Hiawatha’s 2019 farmers’ market schedule about half completed, it’s natural to begin looking ahead to the 2020 season.