Erica Shanks: Working for producers, consumers and community

Published 10:08 pm Friday, March 25, 2016



By Mark Schmerling

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Ready availability of locally produced food is a major draw for Polk County residents. It’s nearly time for local farmers markets to open, with residents and visitors eyeing to the calendar in anticipation.


Connecting these residents with that food, while helping provide more business for local producers, is Erica Shanks’ passion. Shanks is a local food education and outreach coordinator.


Regarding those local producers, Shanks stated, “As corny as it sounds, we want to make their dreams come true . . . I’m doing everything I can to make that happen.”


As farmers market manager for Tryon and Columbus, and as the EBT education and outreach coordinator under a grant from the Polk County Community Foundation, she’s able to do that.


EBT, or electronic benefit transfer, is similar to a bank ATM or debit card, and is issued to recipients to receive and use their food stamp and/or cash benefits. EBT customers are able to increase their purchasing power at the markets in Columbus, Tryon and also in Saluda. (Saluda is currently working on its application to accept EBT.)


2015 was the first year that the Tryon and Columbus’ Farmers Markets accepted EBT purchases.


“I want to get awareness out,” Shanks said of letting EBT recipients know they can use their cards at the markets and are also able to double their dollars.


“It’s all about building relationships,” Shanks said of connecting residents with those who produce at least some of their food. For those folks, visiting a local farm/tailgate market is not simply a shopping chore, but a way to socialize with friends, and with growers.


“You want it to be an enjoyable experience. Markets are built around community,” said Shanks.


The Columbus Farmers Market, located just off Mills Street, between the county courthouse and the Womack Building, begins April 9, and operates every Saturday through November 19, from 8 a.m. to noon.


This year, the Tryon Farmers Market will be at Harmon Field — a new location, as previous locations in town were often too temporary. Shanks noted that the exact Harmon Field location has not been designated, but when it is, she stated that visitors will be able to distinguish it easily, just off of Harmon Field Road.


“We will be visible enough for people to see us,” Shanks promised.


The Tryon Market will be open Wednesdays, 9 a.m. through noon, from May 4 through November 16.

Both Tryon’s and Columbus’s markets have another new draw.


“Our market is now dog-friendly,” Shanks announced. “We voted as a board to make it a dog-friendly market.” She said that was almost automatic, as Harmon Field is already a dog-friendly location.


“Harmon Field is a wonderful location,” she added. “I’m really excited about it.”


Officials connected with the Tryon and Columbus markets are accepting vendor applications from producers within a 25-mile radius, as the crow flies, which includes many producers. Both markets have a number of vendors’ slots to fill.


Saluda’s tailgate market (not in Shanks’ domain) will be open this year every Friday from May 6 through October 28, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.


Shanks pointed out that the Farmers Market Coalition, a nationwide advocacy organization, provides free EBT equipment and covers some fees and services for eligible markets, while Polk County Community Foundation has provided matching funds.


Originally from South Carolina, Shanks received her bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism and Spanish from Northwest Missouri State University. In this region, she has served as an AmeriCorps Vista member and later as a leader in that organization.


“We want to keep farmers as farmers,” Shanks resolved, “and encourage younger farmers. We have to eat. Everybody has to eat. Working with producers and encouraging customers is bringing that relationship back to your plate.”


“Local food for me is what I’m absolutely passionate about,” she stated. At local farmers’ markets, she said, “You can ask questions about where your food came from . . . Any way we can support that is immensely important.”


Contact Shanks at