Local farmers and markets combine to bring residents the daily “fresh”
In a city where entrepreneurs thrive and local businesses are enthusiastically supported, it’s no surprise that the demand for local farmers markets has increased significantly in recent years. Chattanooga now boasts at least 15 weekly markets, so if you thought the big Chattanooga Market on Sundays was your only option, you couldn’t be more wrong. There is at least one farmers market every day of the week in Chattanooga right now, with market locations all over the city.
If you haven’t visited a market yet, you’re now out of excuses.
While farmer’s market might be known for fresh, in-season vegetables, nowadays they offer so much more. Vegetables, fruits, eggs, milk, meats, cheeses, flour, breads, baked goods, jellies, honey you name it—and those are just the edibles! As the demand for fresh, locally-grown food has risen, more small farms are coming on the scene to increase the available supply.
Tant Hill Farm is one such small farm that is helping meet this growing demand. Farmers Mark and Gina Tant began farming for themselves in 2009, living off the land and being self-sufficient. But by 2011 they were growing plenty of vegetables for themselves and decided to apply as vendors at the Main St. Farmers Market held every Wednesday year-round. This decision was fueled by the desire “to grow for the serious eaters that care about where their food comes from,” says Gina Tant.
“People are seeing the problem with the food system and have wanted to become reconnected with the land and the best source of nutrient dense quality food,” adds her husband, Mark. “It is evident by the large increase in Farmers Markets.”
As more and more people have become aware of where their food comes from, and begun to care about what they put into their bodies, the opportunities to buy local, mostly organically (though not always “certified” organic) grown foods right down the street has increased.
By 2015, the USDA Farmers Market Directory listed more than 8,500 farmers markets across the country, a more than 50 percent increase than a mere five years ago. The trend is sweeping the country and continues to grow. Robin Fazio, owner of Sonrisa Farm which produces whole-wheat flour, wheat grain and occasionally bran, said he remembers a time when his family would drive to the farmer’s market in Atlanta, which was the only farmers market he recalls. But with the increase in press and awareness of “real” food, he sees people becoming more concerned with the planet earth and doing what they can to contribute to sustainability by supporting local agriculture.
While they don’t often sell their wheat-based products at the market because he also has a full time teaching job in addition to his farming operation, when they do attend it’s because they are asked to by supportive customers.
“When we go, we feel good. People say such nice things to us,” Fazio says. “It’s my way of making a little bit of a positive influence. Someone who buys my product doesn’t have to go buy it off the shelf.” This social interaction between farmers and customers is a large part of attending farmers markets for many people.
“People bring their children to teach them about where their food comes from and how it is produced,” Mark Tant notes. “[The markets] bring people together to talk about the most important thing we do in our lives three times a day.”
Attending the Red Bank Farmers Market on a recent Monday, I noticed that it wasn’t just the patrons bringing their children to the market, it was the farmers as well. The Doowra Farm stand had three generations there, with everyone pitching in and enjoying the experience.
Right beside them, Melina Bliss of Your Mystic Delights had her two boys with her as a way to teach them how to run a small business. They attend five weekly markets selling bread and also run a catering business. When baking, she teaches her boys to put love in it, explaining the importance of good energy when it comes to what goes into our foods.
While there were certainly plenty of fresh summer vegetables to choose from at the Red Bank market, there was so much more—soaps, wooden toys and even a pet adoption booth. To make this social event even more welcoming, August and Eric Bruce of Barefoot Nellie & Co were at the entrance to the market playing Bluegrass music. A third musician, Conner Vlietstra, had joined them on this particular week and said he occasionally plays at the Erlanger Medical Mall market on Fridays and frequents the St. Elmo market to entertain shoppers with his banjo as well.
August and Eric attend the Red Bank market most Mondays and while the music was entertaining for shoppers, they go a step further by showing people, especially children, how to play the instruments as well. They even offer a free fiddle school for further instruction.
The social aspect is a huge part of the local markets. Not surprisingly, the Farmers Market Coalition’s website references a study showing that shoppers have more than three times as many social and informational encounters at farmers markets than they do at national chain supermarkets.
They also found that farmers markets foster interactions among people of different race, class, age and lifestyle and that many of those surveyed saw the greatest benefit of farmers markets to be that it brings people together. Anyone who has ever gone to the big Chattanooga Market at the First Tennessee Pavilion on a Sunday can attest to that. People from all walks of life and all parts of the city can be found at this large public market which was named by Frommer’s as one of the Top Ten Best Public Markets in America.
If you can’t find what you’re looking for at the Chattanooga Market, it’s probably not worth having. The number of not only locally-grown food vendors, but also locally-produced arts and craft wares at this market leaves nothing to be desired. Their website notes that one of the goals of this and their other five weekly markets within Hamilton County, are meant to encourage commerce, entertainment, and trade and they have become an icon for the city in terms of cultural diversity, tourism, and economic impact. Dava Stewart of Doowra Farm said she believes it was the Chattanooga Market and its success that really kicked things off for the local farmers market scene.
If the fun you’ll have and the learning experiences you’ll encounter aren’t enough to convince you to venture out to your nearest market, stop and think about the importance of food and where that food comes from. Store-bought products may list the ingredients, but who made it? How far has it been shipped? How long as it been sitting on the shelf? At farmers markets, most of the produce is picked that same day and you are guaranteed to have some of the freshest food you can find.
Jayme O’Donnell, a recent “convert” to the farmers market trend, said her best friend had been trying to convince her to give the market a try for years. “I shrugged it off,” she explains. “I always had an excuse of why I couldn’t make it.” Finally, in early March she gave the Main St. Market a try and was hooked.
“I have been going every Wednesday since my first visit,” she says. “The quality of the produce is unbeatable. You get the freshest, organic, seasonal, local food available. And the economic impact of shopping locally is undeniable.” She now buys all of her produce at the market, as well as cheese and meat on occasion, shopping at the grocery store mostly for milk and dry goods.
There really is no excuse not to give a local farmer’s market a try. With markets seven days a week, times spanning from mid-day to evenings, and locations all over the city, you’re sure to find one that fits your schedule. Our bodies are possibly the most important asset we have and we should definitely be aware and concerned with what we put in them.
Consider the farmers you’re buying from. “It is our passion to harvest and place nutrient dense foods in the hands of dedicated people that are concerned about feeding themselves, their children and friends the best food possible,” says Mark and Gina Tant. They consider it a reward and privilege to be a local and trusted source of food.
Robin Fazio mentioned a fourth tenant of sustainability (the basic three being social, environmental and economic)—“the farmer has to be healthy and happy.” Sure, maybe you can buy the same foods at the grocery store, but can you trust the source? I promise you, you will taste the difference in your food when it’s “made with love” like Melina Bliss says.
By choosing to shop at a local farmers market you can feel good not only about the food you’re eating, but also the farmers you’re supporting, the economy you’re stimulating, the sustainability you’re contributing to, and the rural livelihood and farmland you’re helping to preserve.
And besides, it’s fun.
What more do you need?