|By TIM THORNBERRY
LEXINGTON, Ky. — With the growing season underway, customers are making their way to the many farmers’ markets across the state. Few are as big and diverse as the Lexington Farmers’ Market - celebrating 31 years in business.
The market is nestled in the heart of the city on Vine Street and fills two blocks with everything from melons to flowers; green onions and asparagus to tomatoes; sweet corn to herbal tea. Throw in a couple of chefs and a few street performers and it becomes a literal hodgepodge of flavors and cultural experiences.
The market features varied events throughout the season to bring even more diversity to itself. Last Saturday was the market’s Spring Green and Mushroom Festival, featuring chef John Foster, who wandered through the booths selecting fruits and vegetables to cook special samples for visitors.
“I come here at least once a year to do a festival for the market,” he said. “I started a restaurant of my own based on using local produce and goods from local farmers. I’ve used the local commodities for 15 years building menus that incorporated all these farmers into those menus. We try to look constantly every year to add something new.”
Foster encourages farmers to work with restaurants, and at the same time, teaches those in food service how to include local commodities in their menus.
“I keep pushing the local farmers to try and become more year-round to keep the restaurant world buying from them,” said Foster. “What I’ve tried to do from my end, is to develop cooks into chefs who are interested in buying locally, who know it’s good, who know that it works and who know that it makes money. Then, of course, they show their cooks how it’s done; so it’s a self perpetuating generation of cooks who are conscious of the fact that these farmers grow really great food.”
The people who visit the market are just as diverse as the events. Some are city dwellers that are regulars at the market, while others come from the country and are there for the first time.
Lauren Lafferre made her first purchase at the market while volunteering there at an animal sanctuary booth. Though she lives in the city now, Lafferre has a good understanding of the farmers throughout the market.
“There are a lot of interesting people here,” she said while picking out a fresh melon. “I’m actually a country person. I grew up on a horse farm in West Virginia.”
As one moves through the crowd of booths, the vast array of goods is impressive but one thing remains a constant and that is the market is all about agriculture.
Vendors like Mary Tyler of Winchester, Jesse Johnson of Georgetown and Steve Shepperson of Parksville are farmers working daily on the farm to make a living.
“We started in produce 25 years ago even though we raised tobacco,” Johnson said. “We figured something was going to eventually change in the tobacco market. I love farming and wanted to stay in farming and that’s why we slowly evolved into raising produce. This is the only market we go to and we do it four days a week. I think people come here because they want to eat healthy and because of the freshness of the products.”
Shepperson said, “We get pretty good prices for produce at a market like this. I’ve got a couple of neighbors that raise a few things and I work closely with another fellow who has a couple of neighbors that raise a few things so we can put out a pretty good spread of Kentucky commodities here.”
Other vendors may not come from a family farm but have a vested interest in the market and agriculture in general.
Betty King and Abigail Keam partner a booth selling King’s herbal tea and Keam’s bee products - something they feel goes well together. “Honey really brings out the flavor of tea,” said King, who is in her first season at the market.
“You really start building relationships with customers out here.”
King works with the University of Kentucky Ag Extension Service as an extension specialist in community development and actually does live on a small farm.
“I think agriculture today is becoming consumer driven rather than commodity driven. I’m lucky because my life’s work and my work here really come together,” she said.
Jeff Dabbelt is the manager of the Lexington Farmers’ Market and sees the benefits for both the customers and the producers.
“This started with a small group of local farmers who thought it was a great way to sell their wares and it has expanded, clearly,” he said.
“Full membership is about 65 participating farm members and we probably represent another 100 farms from across the state that sell their products through our member farmers. I think the market is a good way for customers to buy locally, tying into the local economy, and directly supporting the farmers. It also gets the farmers to interact directly with the customers enabling them to make more money and keep doing what they do and to keep the farm and pass it on from generation to generation.”
At the end of the day, the market clears, customers return home to enjoy their goods and the farmers return home to farm like they always do.
Shepperson will go back to the family farm in Boyle County to ready himself for the next market day.
“It’s important to support markets like these because the small guy is the backbone of this country,” Shepperson explained.
“If there aren’t any farms left someday then where is our food supply going to come from?”
For more information on the Lexington Farmers’ Market visit their website at www.lexingtonfarmersmarket.com or call 859-608-2655.
This farm news was published in the May 24, 2006 issue of Farm World.