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HARTFORD, CT -- The Connecticut Department of Agriculture has exciting news for early birds who thrive on locating outstanding Connecticut-grown products at great prices while their neighbors are still fast asleep: it is planning a new farmers market facility at the Hartford regional market.

The Connecticut Regional Produce Market, known informally as the Hartford regional market, is the largest perishable food distribution facility between Boston and New York. It is operated by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture as a self-sustaining, non-profit venture funded through operational fees. The Connecticut Marketing Authority oversees its operation and planning.

A seasonal farmers market operates on the grounds of the regional market under a 170 by 50 foot open-air pavilion covering 28 stalls. This farmers market attracts an average of 10,000 customers each year. The greatest activity occurs in spring, when flashlight-toting, wagon-pulling consumers turn out by the hundreds in the wee hours of the morning to purchase Connecticut-grown trees, shrubs, perennials and bedding plants. Later in the summer, fruits and vegetables are available along with an assortment of other local products such as cut flowers, honey and maple syrup.

The Connecticut Department of Agriculture has been granted $116,865 through the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to design a larger, enclosed facility that would accommodate more specialty crop producers, products and customers, and that would allow this popular farmers market to operate year round. The number of stalls would be increased to 80 from 28, allowing up to 52 more farmers to participate on any given day.

The current facilities are open to the elements, restricting customer traffic and sales to a seasonal basis. Connecticut-grown crops such as honey, maple syrup and greenhouse plants, however, offer year-round availability. The new facility would enable the farmers market to operate throughout the entire year, thus strengthening the state's specialty crop industry.

According to Bob Pellegrino, executive director of the Hartford regional market and marketing director for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, the project includes design of indoor restrooms, increased parking and improved traffic flow, along with the larger, protected enclosure.

Consumer awareness of and demand for local products have been steadily increasing over the past two decades, while the popularity of farmers markets has exploded. Seasonal farmers markets in the state have increased from 22 in 1986 to 114 in 2008.

Last year, approximately 360 farmers participated in the state's 114 seasonal farmers markets. The proposed new facility would provide those farmers -- and any of the state's other 4,500 farms -- to participate in a larger, year- round farmers market that has the potential to draw from most of Connecticut's 3.5 million residents, 877,000 of whom live right in Hartford County). The market's location, right off Interstate-91 and just north of the state's center, makes it a reasonable drive from nearly anywhere in Connecticut.

The "possible starting date" for the new project is this fall, according to Mr. Pellegrino, and the target date for construction completion is July 1, 2011.