By Kayla Hawthorne, OCJ field reporter
Farmers markets are a staple in a growing number of cities throughout the state, but each fall the inevitable, harsh Ohio weather brings the growing season (and the farmers market season) to an end in most towns. As a result, there are few Christmas gift shopping opportunities at Ohio’s farmers markets.
An exception, though, can be found in the southeastern Ohio city of Athens where the farmers market runs year-round on Saturdays. At the Athens Farmers Market, vendors offer stocking stuffers aplenty this time of year.
Known as one of Ohio’s most successful locations for local farmers to connect with buyers, the Athens Farmers Market began in 1972 when a few locals with the Soil and Water Conservation District saw the need for a place to buy fresh produce. In the first summer, the market peaked with 12 producers, selling mostly vegetables. In 1995, the market’s manager and board made the decision to extend the Saturday market to year-round, instead of April through Thanksgiving, with just a handful of producers that first winter. For several years, the vendors at the winter markets were outside in the University Mall parking lot. Now, some of them are allowed inside the mall during the winter months.
Today the market is managed by Kip Parker, who has been working at the market for around 10 years.
“So, about eight years ago [the board members] talked to the people at the mall and they said ‘Yes, you can come inside here.’ So, starting Dec. 1, the first Saturday in December, about half the vendors go inside and the other half stay out here. It’s a little more pleasant in there on a day like today,” Parker said on a chilly Saturday morning in November.
Parker said there are usually 20 vendors inside during the winter and around 10 to 15 vendors outside.
“In the summer we get up to 60 when the weather’s good and it’s growing season,” Parker said. “I haven’t counted up today, but I think [there are] 42 maybe 45 here. We’ve had up to 105 in the past. We’re kind of constrained by size now.”
The size constraint Parker referred to started in 2013 when the Texas Roadhouse was built in the mall parking lot. The farmers market used to operate at the end of the parking lot, parallel to the road, but the restaurant’s operating hours conflicted with the market’s hours and resulted in some lost space in front of the restaurant.
Despite the size and the cold temperatures, the winter farmers market is still a success for Athens.
“We’ve done winter counts and on a good Saturday in the winter we get 1,000 customers,” Parker said. “In the summer, it’s up to 2,500. It depends on the time of the season. So, there’s not as much stuff and there’s not as many vendors, therefore, not as many people. But it’s still a pretty big deal.”
Customers can still get an assortment of fresh produce at the Athens Farmers Market during the months of December through March.
“We have a veggie vendor who has like 16 high tunnels and they have lettuce and turnips and spinach and kale and stuff all winter,” Parker said. “You see them arrive and they have all the coolers full … and when they leave everything is empty. It’s amazing that they go through that much volume in January and February. You can get carrots, fresh greens, kale, turnips, spinach, year-round basically. A lot of winter squash, some of them bring meats, herbs.”
Rick Vest is a local produce vendor who has been selling at the market for over 15 years. He says although business is still good in the winter, the market cannot be compared to the summer farmers market because the customers are a different crowd.
“It’s almost all local people. And when I say ‘local,’ I’m talking Athens. It’s a real close, tight-knit group,” Vest said. “Regular customers is what it amounts too, which I have all year long, but it’s really more prevalent during the winter.”
Vest, who is the owner of Vest Berries and Produce, sells berries and vegetables during the growing season. They also have several vegetables available during the winter, which Vest sells inside the mall for the market.
“We have vegetables all summer and we harvest a lot of root vegetables to store during the winter and sell here at the market,” Vest said.
“[We have] Yukon Gold potatoes. There’s four kinds of winter squash: buttercup, butternut, spaghetti and delicata that we sell all winter long,” Vest said. “Then sweet potatoes, we had an exceptional year on those. We harvested almost 10,000 pounds. And they were very big this year, so, yeah, we have plenty of those. And we try to have carrots and greens all winter long too. If I don’t have it, somebody else will. There’s always someone who has greens all winter long. They’re very, very good, healthy, greens.”
Another vendor, Pork & Pickles, offers customers a different type of food items. Pork & Pickles does not grow their own produce or raise livestock for their meat products. They purchase from local farms, most of which are vendors at the Athens Farmers Market.
“We pickle vegetables. We go local and organic whenever we can,” said Meredith Thompson, an employee of Pork & Pickles. “We also butcher pigs from Dexter Run Farms, which is a local pasture raised farm. We do five different types of sausages and sometimes we do some seasonal sausages. We also do butcher cuts like roasts and chops, ribs, smoked bacon and ham, bone broth.”
Pork & Pickles has a permanent food truck at Devil’s Kettle Brewing in Athens. The business has a catering side too. This holiday season, they have a pickle platter available.
“[It has] all of our handmade pickles, crostini and our house made mustard,” Thompson said. “Then we also have a cheese platter with the house made mustard. That has honey and crostini and charcuterie, which we make all the charcuterie ourselves with the pigs that we butcher.”
The charcuterie includes pork and chicken rillette, heart pastrami, fromage de tete (or head cheese), and country terrine. Among these foods available at the market, shoppers can also get wines, salsa, bread, fudge, honey, tea, baked goods and much more.
In 1995, the Athens Farmers Market started participating in the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Since then, they have begun participation in the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the SNAP token system, as well. These programs are funded by the USDA for clients to receive coupons for the purchase of fresh produce.
“[SNAP use] has gone down over the years. We were one of the first markets in the state to accept SNAP benefits,” Parker said. “We now have a match program where if a recipient gets $20 worth of SNAP coupons, they get an additional $20 of fruits and veggie coupons.”
For anyone who has visited the city of Athens or Ohio University, it is not difficult to see the locavore passion amongst the tight-knit group of local people. Eating fresh and local is conscious decision that many residents and businesses make.
“Every locally owned restaurant [in town] sources lots of stuff from these people. It’s hard to go in a restaurant and order a full meal where you don’t get something that’s from one of the vendors,” Parker said. “We just spawn a huge business with all the local eateries buying things. The university buys things from some of the vendors. It’s just become a big kind of a food hub with the market here, which in my opinion, is what [the market] started.”
For more information, visit athensfarmersmarket.org.