Like me, during your visits to the Market Square Farmers’ Market and other random times in the last year or so, you may have noticed references to Nourish Knoxville and wondered vaguely what that was all about. You may have noticed a copy of the “2014 East Tennessee Local Food Guide” and wondered how all this fit together. I know some of you are also looking for news on a winter farmers’ market.
Charlotte Tolley graciously agreed to sit with me and help me sort it all out. Long involved with the local food scene, she’s guided the Market Square Farmers’ Market since its inception. As it has grown, certain organizational changes have been required to manage that endeavor and, at the same time, other areas of need have been exposed which needed to be addressed.
Charlotte’s passion about local food is quickly apparent. She said she loves the excitement that comes with each food season when the long awaited foods grown that time of year first come to fruition. She says her favorite time of year is fall because the summer vegetables are still available and the fall vegetables are coming in. She’s very attuned to the fact that many of our best memories center around gathering, preparing and enjoying food.
This was the eleventh season of the Market Square Farmers’ Market, which started in 2004. At that time, efforts were being mounted to attempt to attract people to downtown and in the mix of a movie theater, Sundown in the City and others, a Farmers’ Market was often mentioned. So, in 2003, Charlotte and a group of like-minded people began laying plans for the first year. The first market opened in May of 2004 with ten vendors. Charlotte wishes they’d waited a little later so that more crops had been ready. There were no meat vendors, craft vendors only came once a month and the entire market was situated on the Market Square Stage. One family, the Perkins, was left from the previous iterations of downtown markets.
Eventually, the market grew out onto the square then around the trees at the south end and across Union onto Market Street. Now it extends down Union a block in each direction. The Wednesday market has grown to well beyond the size of the original Saturday market and she points out that this mid-week market is important to farmers because vegetables can’t necessarily wait through the week to be best enjoyed. I’d add that a mid-week market is also important for downtown residents who try to make a large portion of their food purchases in the city.
The early going was a bit rough. People wanted strawberries in May. People wanted oranges and pistachio nuts. The need for education about local foods and growing seasons became readily apparent. It helped start a lot of the local conversation which has become more common in our city about food. As downtown grew, so did the Market Square Farmers’ Market and by the fifth year it was solid. By the tenth year it had turned a corner and become a major attraction.
It’s also helped incubate or enhance local businesses and has offered some surprises along the way, such as building relationships between the various parties. Charlotte points to Cruze Dairy Farm which has been a part of the market from the beginning as an example. Colleen Cruze came to the market when she was fifteen-years-old and brought a few crates of milk. Eventually an ice cream cart was added, then a truck and biscuits, Colleen got married and had a child and the whole thing feels very much like family. The very fact that we have a local dairy farm is remarkable in that they are no longer common in most parts of the country and most produce cheese rather than milk.
Originally part of the new Market Square District Association which formed as a 501-C4, that organization was also operating First Night Knoxville and other things. They eventually merged with Center City Events, which was a 501-C3 and the market fell under that umbrella. Charlotte operated the market from the beginning with help from people like ace-volunteer Art Carmichael, but in recent years as the market exploded in size and she was increasingly asked to become involved other market efforts, in agriculture preservation and other food issues it became apparent that a different structure was needed. And the original goal of bringing people downtown? We can put a check mark beside that one.
Knoxville did not have a non-profit organization devoted to food issues exclusively and comprehensively, which is the case for each of the cities around us. The time had come for a separate entity that could take a larger view than that of the area covered by the Market Square District Association, which led to the formation of Nourish Knoxville, a separate 501-C3. The new organization allows a regional focus, allows pursuit of grants from foundations and generally enables them to address on a larger scale their most critical mission: making farming at a small, local and sustainable level a viable possibility.
The Market Square Farmers’ Market will remain a primary focus, but the new structure offers the possibility of other projects, such as the Local Food Guide, which came out this past spring and will be an annual print offering from the non-profit. A web version is also in the works. Made possible by a grant from PlanET, the guide offers a “comprehensive resource for finding fresh, locally grown food in our community.” Basically, if you want to eat more locally produced food, this guide is critical.
One of the first options opened by not having an exclusive downtown focus, is the possibility of a winter market. Given that it requires a large indoor space and parking for unloading the goods, for customers and for food trucks, downtown doesn’t have that combination readily available. The Southern Railway Station worked last year, but conflicts in scheduling required another move for this year. The second annual Nourish Knoxville Winter Farmers’ Market begins tomorrow at 10:00 AM at Central Methodist Church, 201 3rd Avenue in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood and represents the organization’s first foray out of downtown proper (though barely out). The market will happen twice a month for January, February and March. Check the Facebook page for specific dates.
Located only blocks north of the immediate downtown area, Central United Methodist offers ample parking for guests and food trucks. The fellowship hall will house the market, but the nave (sanctuary) will be open for viewing and, according to Charlotte, it is quite beautiful. Once there you’ll find over forty vendors, with care taken to include as many farmers as possible and an attempt made to balance the products (produce and meats) offered as much as is possible in winter. There will be a separate room with twelve craft vendors, each of whom have participated in the Market Square Farmers’ Market.
So, the Market Square Farmers’ Market grew up to produce Nourish Knoxville. Nourish Knoxville will continue to guide the Farmers’ Market while doing other cool things like the Local Food Guide and the Nourish Knoxville Winter Farmers’ Market and who knows what other cool things? Charlotte is excited about being a part of the effort going forward, but also excited about having the organization “grow up,” in a sense, to the point that it will continue to help Knoxville residents eat better for many years to come.