published Sunday, April 27th, 2014

Growing farmers markets: Vendors work to meet demand as consumers buy in to buying local

Farmhand Michal Miller of 2 Angels Mushrooms shares cooking tips with Tiffany Fox of Harrison at the Ooltewah Farmers Market.
Farmhand Michal Miller of 2 Angels Mushrooms shares cooking tips with Tiffany Fox of Harrison at the Ooltewah Farmers Market.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Abundant Acres of Athens, Tenn., offers fresh-picked vegetables at the Ooltewah Farmers Market.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

FARMERS' MARKETS

• Bradley County Farmers Market North -- 234 Urbane Road NE, Cleveland, Tenn. Produce, meat, eggs, dairy products. 8:30 a.m-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. April-November. 423-728-7001.

• Brainerd Farmers Market -- Grace Episcopal Church, 20 Belvoir Ave. Produce, flowers, fruits. 10 a.m.-noon. Saturdays. Until October. 423-698-0330.

• Chattanooga Market -- First Tennessee Pavilion, 1826 Carter St. Produce and handmade arts and crafts. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 29; opening day is today. 402-9958. www.chattanoogamarket.com.

• Chattanooga River Market -- Tennessee Aquarium Plaza, 1 Broad St. Produce, arts, crafts and horticultural projects. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays. Through Oct. 4. www.chattanoogamarket.com.

• Delano Community Market -- 351 Needle Eye Lane, Delano, Tenn. (Polk County). Produce, baked goods, livestock. Run by local Mennonite community, so no electricity, computers or phone. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. April-December.

• Downtown Dalton Farmers Market -- Dalton Green Park, Dalton, Ga. Produce, arts and crafts. 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays.May-August. www.facebook.com/downtowndaltonsaturdaymarket.

• Highland Park Commons Market -- 1918 Union Ave. Produce and goods from farms and community gardens located within a 75-mile radius. 10 a.m.-noon. Saturdays; opening day is May 24. www.hpcommonsmarket.com.

• Main Street Market -- 324 E. Main St. Farmers, Produce, cheese and meats. 4-6 p.m. Wednesdays. Through November.mainstfarmersmarket.com

• Ooltewah Farmers Market -- Ooltewah Nursery & Landscape Co., 5829 Main St. Locally grown produce; no wholesalers or resellers allowed. 3-6 p.m. Thursdays in summer, 3-5 p.m. in winter. 238-9775.

• Ringgold Market -- Catoosa County Courthouse, Ringgold, Ga. Produce, crafts and live music in downtown Ringgold. 9 a.m.-noon. Saturdays. June 4-Labor Day. www.ringgold.com.

• St. Alban's Hixson Market -- St. Alban's Church, 7514 Hixson Pike. Variety of beef, honey, spices, eggs, bread, garden accessories from regional farms. 10 a.m.-noon. Saturdays; opening day is May 12; 5-7 p.m Tuesdays. 423-842-1342.

• Wednesday Market -- First Tennessee Pavilion, 1829 Carter St. Produce, arts and crafts, sponsored by Chattanooga Market. 4-7 p.m. Wednesdays. Starts May 7. 423-648-2496.

For the first couple of years after opening the Chattanooga Market in early April 2002, then-owner-founder Nick Jessen had nightmares in which no one showed up.

When the 2014 Chattanooga Market opens this morning at 11 a.m., current executive director Chris Thomas will be more worried about where to put everyone.

Thomas expects to have between 13,000 and 15,000 people strolling through more than 225 vendors that have registered to sell their goods today in and around First Tennessee Pavilion. The market had almost 500 different vendors participate throughout the season last year, he says, and had 300 applications from new vendors this year.

"Physical space limits are starting to impact our ability to serve our community -- all aspects: farms, artisans, food trucks and customers/tourists -- so that is our top challenge for the years ahead.

"It's a fascinating but good problem to have."

Farmers markets are hardly a new idea, but they have become trendy in the Chattanooga area since Jessen decided to follow the lead of markets like ones in Portland and Eugene, Ore., almost 15 years ago. "Buy local" has become a rallying cry across the country and has trickled down to the Chattanooga region. Today there are at least a dozen markets selling locally harvested produce such as fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, bread and dairy items in the Chattanooga area, including Bradley County, Polk County and Dalton, Ga. Some also feature arts and crafts vendors.

Selling locally grown or created products is a key distinction, local market managers say, and makes what they offer different than what you might buy at wholesale or retail groceries, or even at many produce stands.

"The desire for local foods is substantial, and we are just riding the wave," says Laura Snell, manager of the Main Street Market, which operates Wednesday evenings in the Architectural Services Parking Lot.

The Main Street Market takes applications once a year and is limited to between 30 and 35 vendors because of space, she says. Vendors offer produce, meats, eggs, some prepared foods and specialty items, and each vendor must produce what he or she sells. A soap or jelly vendor, for example, must grow the ingredients as well as make the product and must man the booth at the market. The market's board of directors tries to balance what is being offered to protect both the vendors and the customers, Snell says.

The Chattanooga Market also runs the Chattanooga River Market on Saturdays at the Tennessee Aquarium Plaza. Thomas says the River Market, which offers primarily arts and craft items, has already topped last year's total sales figure of $142,608 after just five weeks.

This year, Thomas and his staff also are introducing a market called Grab & Go Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. at First Tennessee Pavilion. It will be a scaled-down version of the Sunday Market.

While that might appear to be direct competition with the 8-year-old Main Street Market about a mile away -- and a situation where they cannibalize each other for both products and customers, hurting both markets -- Thomas and Snell each say it is a reflection of the rise in both the supply and the demand for local foods.

"We are very supportive of the Chattanooga Market," Snell says. "In general, all of the markets are good for each other. There is a demand for fresh foods, and we are all working for the same goals."

Thomas says the decision to offer a Wednesday market came at the request of his vendors, who wanted another day to sell their goods.

"Sundays are maxed out, and we are starting to see the physical limits with things like parking. ... The vendors are looking for ways to expand, and Wednesday is the best option for us to use the pavilion," Thomas says. "I think we've [all] done a good job of building up the demand on the customer side, and the supply side is doing a good job to keep up."

The upside

With a dozen or so vendors, the Brainerd Farmers' Market at Grace Episcopal Church and the St. Alban's Hixson Market at St. Alban's Church, are smaller than Chattanooga Market or Main Street. The Highland Park Commons Market will open for the first time on May 24 and offer produce from nearby community gardens.

And many market managers acknowledge that one goal for their markets is to attract people to their neighborhoods, whether it's Highland Park, Ooltewah or Main Street.

One of the advantages of having so many farmers' markets, both large and small, is that customers get to know and trust the farmers. Market managers often visit the farms to ensure that what's being sold is actually grown, raised and harvested on the farm and not purchased at a retail outlet, then resold as local.

"It does happen," says April Haney who, along with her husband, Junior, owns and operates Haney Dairy farm in Cleveland, Tenn. The Haney farm has been in operation since 1922 and sells its wares at the Ooltewah Farmers Market.

"We grow our produce and raise our cattle here," she says. "One of the things I like about the Ooltewah Farmers Market is that they come out and see that we have chickens who are laying eggs and cows producing milk and a garden growing produce."

Chattanooga also has about two dozen restaurants that feature locally produced items on their menus.

"It's really amazing how far we've come," Jessen says. "I used to have nightmares that I would show up at the pavilion at 4:30 in the morning and set everything up and nobody would show up."

That first year, he remembers the day that Keith McKay, a farmer from Blount County, Ala., showed up with some strawberries for the first time.

"When he came, he set the first benchmark when he sold 120 gallons of strawberries in one day," Jessen says.

These days, several farmers at the Chattanooga Market are likely to sell 1,000 gallons in a single, five-hour day. In fact, two years ago, a good year for growing the fruit, market vendors set a new record by selling $22,500 worth of strawberries, with one vendor responsible for $14,000 of those sales.

"They were sold out in three hours," Thomas says.

Virginia and Randall Richards are fifth-generation farmers at Beulah Farms in Spring Place near Dalton, Ga. Both retired teachers, they reactivated the farm seven years ago, primarily to raise pigs and chickens and grow some produce to provide healthy food for their family.

Before too long, though, they were selling small batches to friends and neighbors and, as their production and word-of-mouth reputation grew, Virginia started selling at the market in Dalton. Now, Beulah Farms sells eggs and Berkshire pork direct from the farm or at the Ooltewah market.

"We are not organic, but we subscribe to the same basic principles," she says. "We don't use pesticides or hormones. We don't make a lot of money doing this, but we make enough to buy feed and to provide a clean, healthy habitat. And we are growing."

The Ooltewah Farmers Market is one of a few in the area that operates year-round, and vendors offer milk, eggs, meats and baked items during the off-growing seasons. Market managers say one challenge they face is educating customers regarding the ways of Mother Nature and the fact that fruits and vegetables have growing seasons.

"We had about 400 people on our opening day [last April] and some were disappointed to find out that we didn't have tomatoes and peppers," says Faith Sharp, market manager at Ooltewah.

"There is a disconnect between going to Walmart or Bi-Lo and seeing all that produce and realizing that it was not grown in a local farmer's back yard. We have forgotten our seasons. You can plant tomatoes in February, but you won't have tomatoes in May. Mother Nature doesn't work that way."

None of the growth in either supply or demand for local products has happened overnight. Jessen used up most of his savings and maxed out a couple of credit cards to start the Chattanooga Market. When Thomas bought it at the end of 2007, vendor sales for the season, which runs from April through December, were just under $1 million. The market topped that milestone in 2008 and last year rang up $3,193,613.

Vendors at the Chattanooga Market last year each averaged about $457 per week in sales. Thomas says about 40 percent of total sales are for local produce and about the same percentage in arts and crafts. The remaining 20 percent is spent on prepared foods from the food trucks at the market.

Customers generally spent between $10 and $15 each on a typical Sunday, Thomas says. At the Holiday Market, which Chattanooga Market runs at the Chattanooga Convention Center in December, they spent closer to $50 per person, he says.

Snell says the Main Street Market did about $200,000 in vendor sales in 2013; May was the peak month with $30,000 in total sales. Because there are multiple entry points to the space, getting an accurate count of the number of customers who visit each week is tough, she says, but she does a head count shortly after ringing the opening bell and last week there were 60 people. Last summer the average was around 80, she says.

April Miller, marketing manager at Ooltewah Nursery Landscaping Co., which runs the market in Ooltewah, says its customers spend about $9 each per visit and their biggest overall month for sales was July, when about 400 customers spent a total of $3,000.

Ooltewah market manager Sharp says it has become more than about buying and selling produce, however.

"It's a community thing now. You see the same faces, and people know each other by name."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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