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The Indiana Department of Agriculture has made great strides in not only promoting state-produced foods, but in bringing consumers and producers together.

Tony Hahn, deputy director of the department, headquartered in Indianapolis, said that the agency's web-based Indiana Agritourism and Farmers' Market Online Directory is a new program now accessible at www.in.gov/apps/isda_farmersmarket.

"The site was launched this spring, just in time for the Indiana's farmers market season," said Mr. Hahn. "Visitors can search for local foods and agricultural destinations throughout Indiana, and find additional resources for local foods, agritourism and producers. Search by product, [pick-your-own] farms, by city or county. Click on a virtual map of any county to pull up all the entities registered under each category. It's a great way for local producers to promote their products, and to help consumers find them. Producers can update their listings on the site, or they can add a new destination they would like to be featured, all at no cost."

Mr. Hahn said the directory also offers information about locally grown products, and will feature a blog about what is in season and how to handle and prepare items. Available year round, the site is updated continually to offer current information.

Annie Schmelzer, program manager for entrepreneurship and diversified agriculture for the agriculture department, is in charge of the on-line directory and of locally grown and consumer programs. Mr. Hahn said she has a full plate of projects to manage this year.

"One program we have participated in for several years, MarketMaker, is a national partnership of land grant institutions and state departments of agriculture," he said. "It is dedicated to the development of a comprehensive food industry marketing and business interactive database. The free interactive web mapping system locates businesses and markets of agricultural products, with the goal being a resource for all businesses in the food supply chain - from helping grocery stores find fresh organic vegetables to helping farmers find a place to sell them. Foodservice operators also find MarketMaker a useful tool."

MarketMaker also provides demographic and business data. Details are summarized on a map to show concentrations of consumer markets and strategic business partners. For example, a user can request lists of federally inspected packing plants along with a map that identifies their locations. The program was developed by the University of Illinois. Indiana participates in it in conjunction with Perdue University and Perdue Extension Service. About 15 states are now partnered with MarketMaker, and Indiana, Mr. Hahn said.

The agriculture department is also working with multiple entities across Indiana for another program titled Dig-IN, a revitalization of the previous Taste of Indiana event.

The event, scheduled for Aug. 29, is a partnership between the ISDA and other agencies. One partner is White River State Park, an urban park located in the heart of downtown Indianapolis, which is the venue for the event. Other partners are Slow Food Indy; Indiana Artisan, a state-based agency that supports and promotes Hoosier artisans and handmade products; and the Neal Brown Hospitality Group. Restaurant owner Chef Brown is known for his artisan food ingredients and his dedication to food causes and improved nutrition.

"Dig-IN will be a showcase of growers demonstrating high quality foods that are grown in Indiana," said Mr. Hahn. "We'll pair local producers and their products with state chefs who show tremendous culinary talent. The event will also include an Indiana wine and beer tasting. But it's also an educational event. The venue will feature seminars, discussion panels, Q&A sessions and much more."

Mr. Hahn added that this is the first year that Dig-IN will be presented, but the state and its partners hope to make it an annual event.

"Many of our projects are possible because of the [U.S. Department of Agriculture]'s Specialty Crop Block Grant," he added. "Under Annie's guidance, the funds are distributed in ways that help organizations such as the Grape and Wine Council and others in Indiana.

"We also have a farmers market cost share program that is funded from the grant," Mr. Hahn continued. "The ISDA will match up to $500 that any market incurs for promoting [its] market."

Mr. Hahn said that it is impossible to keep track of the number of farmers markets in Indiana because they are popping up so fast.

"The markets used to represent vegetables and fruits," he said. "But today they offer meats, flowers, cheeses, arts and crafts and much more. It's great to see entrepreneurs get involved at these markets, and it's just as great to see consumers getting to know the people who produce their food. It creates a sense of community by bringing people face to face. A person may see his vegetable vendor at church on a Sunday and say, 'That's the guy who grows my tomatoes.' It is warming to people to interact with someone else based on something as simple as food."

(For more on Indianapolis, see the June 21, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)