Farm to Table

By Alexandra Shimalla | Photos By Sara Wise

At 6 a.m. on Saturday, the market manager shows up and begins assembling the parts and pieces that go into the foundation of the Athens Farmers Market (AFM). She puts up the front booth, the music tent, and the cooking demo station, and places all the signs around Bishop Park. At around 6:30 a.m., the farmers begin to show up, followed by the arts and crafts vendors at 7 a.m. At 8 a.m. sharp, the Athenians arrive and the market is officially underway. People wander tables, purchase local and sustainably grown food, and catch up on the lives of their market friends.

“It’s about the collective experience,” says Sarah Thurman, market manager. “It’s all the little conversations that happen in between. People go through life and they bring it to the market and they share it with us, and sometimes it’s really good and sometimes it’s really bad. Because we’re so consistent, you get to experience the range of someone’s life. It’s just a really humbling thing to share with people.”

This is Thurman’s third year as market manager but fifth year of involvement. She recalls her first opening day, praying that at least 2,000 people would show. More than 3,000 people came. She describes the atmosphere as a theme park, “dancing through people” to get from place to place. “A consequence of that happening is you just get deeply humbled. You know that people are choosing to show up and commune with each other on a weekend, spend time in each other’s company,” says Thurman.

The 2019 season, the 12th year of the market, kicked off with 3,700 people attending the Saturday market.

Although the more popular market held on Saturdays is at Bishop Park, the market is also held on Wednesday evenings at Creature Comforts Brewing Company in downtown Athens. The downtown market had floated around, eventually settling on a partnership with Creature Comforts in 2014, right after the brewery opened its doors. “Five years later, and we still think the Athens Farmers Market is an excellent way for us to leverage our location to engage our community,” says Matt Stevens, Creature Comforts’ director of community and culture. “Given that beer is essentially an agricultural product, we have also loved the opportunity to build relationships with our local farming community. We have a strong admiration for farmers, and we couldn’t do what we do without them.”

The brewery provides tokens to the market (a form of currency for people who don’t want to deal with cash and credit cards) with the purchase of a beer. It also offers a unique beer each week during its market season (which runs April through November, as compared to March through December for the Saturday market). Using ingredients from the vendors, the brewery creates a special beer; a recent example used rye bread and sourdough yeast from The Comerian Bakery.

Whether mid-week or on Saturdays, market-goers will find a healthy variety of options to choose from: an abundance of produce, prepared foods (like breads, biscuits, jams, and jellies), meats, eggs, coffee, and dairy products. Pick up flowers for the week just because or buy a gift for someone at one of the arts and crafts vendors (a bountiful mixture of jewelry, artisanal soaps, and ceramics).

3 Porch Farm has been a vendor at the Saturday market since 2011. “Transitioning to farm life in your late 30s after living a suburban existence can be a real shock,” says Steve O’Shea (his wife Mandy also runs the farm). “The main thing that has kept us going is the support of this community. We are fueled by it, lifted by it, and inspired to continue.”

Although the vendors might fluctuate a bit from market to market, there’s a formula behind it all. The market also keeps three tables open each Saturday for governmental organizations and local nonprofits to use as a marketing tool, networking opportunity, and chance for these groups to educate the public on their mission. “We think it’s worth it to make sure they have a space,” says Thurman.

The Athens-Clarke County Water Conservation office has been at the market recently. “We are a private business, but it’s important to understand the value that we bring to the community, regardless of the structure of our business. Where else can you get 3,000 people together on a weekend? It’s such a special place,” explains Thurman.

It’s also a place where children are welcome. “I think it’s exposing [children] to a lot of goodness and support in the community, but it also just makes the market super fun,” says Abigail Darwin, the community coordinator and organizer of the children’s booth. “We should always be investing in the next generation.”

The children’s booth is a place where children can enjoy fun activities and crafts while their parents shop for the week. Darwin says she loves seeing the friendships that emerge from the market and the booth, specifically. Children who attend regularly start to become friends with each other, as do the parents. “I think that’s really valuable,” she says.

What’s also valuable are the educational and accessibility initiatives that the market practices. Individuals with SNAP dollars can double their money at the market; for example, instead of using $5 in SNAP, the AFM allows them to spend $10.

Landon Bubb is this year’s market chef, but he’s been involved with AFM for six years; now, he organizes the cooking demos. Although there were occasional pop-ups at the market in the past, Thurman wanted to bring back the cooking demos on a regular basis. “The way it’s been received thus far, I would love for it to be a consistent, staple presence at the market,” says Bubb.

Bubb uses his role as market chef to get shoppers accustomed to using seasonal, local produce. He brings in chefs from around town to introduce people to various cooking styles, techniques, and cultures. He also creates weekly meal plans (five vegetable-centered dishes). Market-goers can come without a plan, pick up a list, and leave the market with a week’s worth of food, says Bubb.

The cooking demos and meal plans are accompanied by a recipe for the meal being taught that day. “I think people are excited to come to the market, but don’t know how to cook fennel or don’t know how to use some ingredient, so having different support systems in place get people excited about cooking and take the stress out of it, making it fun,” says Bubb.

But it seems that many people attend the market for the sense of comfort and camaraderie, says Darwin.

“Personally, my favorite is watching people get pregnant and have babies and how fast they grow,” says Thurman with a laugh. Her own child is 3, and she says the market has always been there, supporting her. Thurman describes the market as a communal place, where individuals from all walks of life and all ages can come and experience a strong community atmosphere.

“There’s so many ways the local community benefits both directly and indirectly, but perhaps a sense of balance is one of the most important. Any true community needs a place for connection and interaction in order to build that sense of togetherness and goodwill. To be able to have the center of that gathering situated around positive intentions of supplying our community members with clean food and beauty is an ideal foundation to build upon. To know that you can tap into that positivity every week is a life line for plenty of individuals, if not the community at large,” says O’Shea.

The AFM is a stabilizing force, a get-together twice a week that enables would-be strangers to connect. “It’s the ultimate experience of security. When you have roots, you’re secure. When you have community, you’re secure. Farmers markets offer that place, where you can come and just be yourself and go through life and have all your needs covered,” says Thurman.