If you’re a young man in spring, your fancy’s lightly turning to thoughts of love (per Tennyson) or baseball (per sports pundits). But if you’re a foodie (young, old, any gender), your fancy’s veering towards farmers markets. Or so says the USDA. During the first two decades of this millennium, these officially defined “collections of two or more farm vendors selling agricultural products directly to customers at a common, recurrent physical location” grew by a whopping 180% to more than 8,000.
Numbers have fluctuated nationally in recent years, but you can barely toss a peach pit without hitting a farmers market around here; more than two dozen have cropped up between Chincoteague and Franklin. Add another when the Ghent Farmers Market opens in April.
“The idea’s been on the radar of the Ghent Business Association for a long time,” says Lori Golding Zontini, who’s bringing it to fruition at the green space by Norfolk’s Blair Middle School on the first and third Fridays of the month from 4–7 p.m. Spend time with her and you’ll be convinced you’ve discovered an alternative energy source.
She already manages the Old Beach Farmers Market (OBFM) and Kings Grant Farmers Market, both in Virginia Beach, between running her homemade, all-natural jam company “It Started with a Fig” and volunteering non-stop with organizations such as the Judeo-Christian Outreach Center. “It’s about making sure there are resources,” she explains the common thread, “whether related to food insecurity or nutrition.”
Farmers markets fit squarely into that mission. Half in Virginia accept SNAP, some stretch those benefits with Virginia Fresh Match, and all facilitate the dietitians’ “eat your colors” edict thanks to catchy prompts like burgundy okra, purple cauliflower and, for the efficient, rainbow chard. Since most markets are outdoors, the vitamin D’s free.
For Ghent’s inaugural season, Zontini anticipates 17-25 vendors, area farmers and foodmakers certified by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and the local health department. Each brings something different “to the table” for one-stop shopping including Shore Coastal Seafood (fish/shellfish), Fritillary Farm (fruits/vegetables), Big House Farm (chicken eggs), Life is Gouda (cheese), Honest Pastures (plant-based meat alternatives), Mandel Maven (Kosher, biscotti-ish mandel bread), Studio Posey (cut flowers) and Pawsnickety Pets (all-natural pet treats). A few crafters such as Norfolk Candle round out the roster.
Many are familiar faces but some are new to the local market scene like Perennial Roots, a biodynamic Accomack farm growing non-GMO, open-pollinated heirloom plants and raising heritage breed livestock. Lori raves about their shiny, lavender ping tung eggplant. “They’ll be bringing different agriculture to Ghent,” she says.
Determining which vendors suit which market approximates assembling a jigsaw puzzle. “Getting the right mix is important, you don’t want to duplicate,” she explains. “And every market has its own culture.”
That culture is influenced by not just city and neighborhood but site as well. Markets occupy everything from church lots to microbreweries. Timing seasons the flavor, too. OBFM thrums with a caffeinated buzz on Saturday mornings and a boho aesthetic given its ViBe Creative District locale. Professionals on lunchbreak mill about City Center Farmers Market at Oyster Point in Newport News on Thursdays.
With Ghent’s kicking off weekends, there’ll be an exhilarating whiff of nighttime’s promise in the air. “People might be going to or from the NARO Expanded Cinema or one of the nearby restaurants,” says Lori. The preponderance of eateries means food trucks, frequent at other markets, might not make sense in the urban village.
But like at many – be they private or publicly-funded, for-profit or nonprofit—she anticipates entertainment, perhaps the Hurrah Players or school music groups. She imagines the youth planted in a “half sun” on the “Rocky Steps,” her description of the Blair Middle staircase. “My face hurts smiling at the vision,” she enthuses.
Of course, people-watching affords its own entertainment, and you’re bound to run into someone you know as markets bustle with singles, couples and families alchemizing chore into adventure. Some shoppers strategically beeline to specific tents methodically ticking off every item on their list, reusable bags looped over their shoulders bulging with enough produce to forge one of Arcimboldo’s Four Seasons paintings. Others don’t cherry-pick. They meander into every tent seeking novelty. Gooseberries! Purslane! Romanesco!
They find that even the familiar seems new, teeming with freshly plucked sensuousness. The sweet candy scent of a perfect carrot. The satisfying snap of pole beans. The juicy burst of biting into a brazenly red, ripe strawberry. There are even those who come not to shop, just to graze (hello, Full Quiver Farm’s breakfast sliders at OBFM).
No matter your motive, education is inescapable. You’ll pick up professional cooking tips (Williamsburg Farmers Market features a chef’s tent with demos and, at many a market, restaurants like Pasta e Pani operate booths) or reap insight with seminars led by fitness gurus and master gardeners. Befuddled by bok choy? Ask your salesperson, the one who grew it.
And perhaps that’s at the root of farmers markets’ appeal. Beyond physical sustenance, they provide the psychological nourishment of knowing not just where your food comes from, but who it comes from. It’s mutual. “You feel a real sense of gratitude when you can grow something and see how it’s appreciated,” says Carolyn Felderman of aptly named Grace and Gratitude Farm, beloved for herbs, flowers, veggies, heirloom tomatoes and, come fall, hand-etched pumpkins.
She fields questions from market-goers like “What’s eating my plants?” and dispenses sage advice on how to pick off bugs (“Don’t spray!”). As social hubs for exchanging ideas as well as commodities, they’re akin to agoras, medieval fairs, women-organized Yoruba marketplaces and, yes, early American farmers markets which remained relevant until the rise of supermarkets about a century ago.
Concern about preserving local farmland and over-processed foods cultivated a renaissance in the 1970s. For years, though, farmers markets were deemed the domain of “hippie granola crunchers.” (BTW, have you tried All Good Craft Granola Bars, made from craft brewers’ spent grain, at OBFM and Harvest Market at O’Connor Brewing Co.?)
But with the mainstreaming of environmental and health issues, they’re now as American as the deep-dish apple pies at Yorktown Market Days (like many local markets, it’s branched out with winter dates) or Virginia Beach Farmers Market (a granddaddy around here, and one of the few permanent structures). So ingrained in our culture, there’s even a series of cozy New York Times bestselling Farmers’ Market Mysteries.
Good for the planet. While fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. travel an average of 1,500 miles from producer to store—polluting via fossil fuels and trash from extra packaging – the USDA calculates most farmers travel less than 50 miles (and many less than 10) to set up their market stalls.
After that short haul, they receive a greater return on the dollar for their product compared to supermarket sales, plowing more money back into the local economy. Plus, farmers markets draw people to a neighborhood, sparking commerce at established businesses, while incubating start-ups. “Some vendors reach the point where they get so big, they have to go brick-and-mortar,” says Zontini.
Before opening her Virginia Beach storefront, Tonya Deveau of My Vegan Sweet Tooth sold her vegan, allergy-friendly baked goods at farmers markets. She recalls how sweet it was. “You’re the one out there meeting people. I kind of miss it, but we’re just so busy here,” she says. “But I still collaborate with some of the businesses I met there.”
Grace and Gratitude’s Felderman concurs, “The market is a family.” A fertile one at that. Witness Williamsburg’s, which started in 2002 with 16 vendors according to Tracy Frey, market manager, and in 2020 averaged 40 vendors each week. “Even with a pandemic,” she emphasizes.
When COVID-19 hit, farmers markets attracted new customers because of their open-air nature. Many instituted practices that will continue post-virus such as drive-thru markets and e-commerce, compelling vendors who had hemmed and hawed to finally launch websites. “The pandemic fast tracked our desire to offer pre-ordering at the market,” says Frey, echoing other managers, and Williamsburg established a “Winter Pick Up” offering farmers market goods year-round.
The Virginia Farmers Market Association (VAFMA) fosters such practices. “There are not many people who understand the unique challenges of managing a farmers market better than another market manager,” says Frey, who is active in both VAFMA and Virginia Fresh Match. Challenges cover the practical (parking), the vital (advancing racial equity and food justice), perhaps even the grammatical (“To apostrophe or not to apostrophe?”).
Cross-market partnerships strengthen all. In Virginia Beach, Frey shares, “I walk the property at each market for three hours and ask, ‘How’d you do today?’ and I often hear, ‘Today was the best market I’ve ever had.’ It thrills me, and I remind them they said the same thing last week.” You can hear the smile in her voice: “It keeps getting better.”
Click here for a full list of farmers markets in Coastal Virginia.