During peak season last year, the Ashland Farmers Market drew an estimated 700 consumers to downtown Ashland during its three-hour, Saturday morning window.
With the official season set to begin May 3, organizers and vendors are excited about this year’s prospects.
Denise Hayes, manager of the Ashland Farmers Market since July of last year, said that she saw a great response in 2013. In addition to high attendance numbers, the market was up to 26 vendors during the height of the season, offering everything from heirloom vegetables and Hanover-raised beef and pork to baked goods and fresh herb and vegetable plantings.
Hayes said that the farmers market offers customers the opportunity to get to know the person who produced their food while also supporting the local economy. She also contends that buying locally has health benefits.
“It’s so important in so many ways. Buying your vegetables, if they came from California they’ve been on a truck for Lord knows how long and they have to put so many preservatives in them just to get them here to still be in any sort of condition to be edible,” Hayes said. “It just makes so much sense to go right to the market and buy it right from the guy that grew it.”
“Industrialized food systems are making a lot of people sick and buying from your farmer that you know and know how everything was raised is one way to ensure that you’re getting quality food that is good for your family,” she added.
In the offseason, many regular vendors at the Ashland market gather at the same space for what are called “renegade markets.” Earlier this month, a handful of vendors took advantage of a sunny, clear weekend to set up behind town hall.
“This is just a renegade market, so we’re not all out here,” said Fran McConnell of Bonnie Biggins Farm in Ashland. “If it’s a pretty day you come out.”
McConnell, a fifth-year vendor, specializes in jams, jellies, preserves and pickles. She also sells baked goods, including cookies and shortbread and some fresh produce. Her all-natural dog treats are also a big hit.
“We have quite a following with the local canine,” McConnell said.
Christi Macomber, market committee chair and owner of Macshack Acres in Doswell, produces eggs and baked goods for the market. Macomber’s been in her volunteer position as committee chair for three years and a market vendor for six years.
During the recent renegade market, Macomber mostly sold eggs from her flock of around three-dozen laying hens, raised free-range on a half-acre piece of property.
Macomber said she’s kept chickens for about 10 years. Once her flock started generating more eggs than she could use, she began looking into how to sell them and started baking on the side.
Before becoming a vendor, Macomber shopped at the market. At that time, she said no local meats were available. Today, between Keenbell Farm in Rockville and Dragonfly Farms in Beaverdam, there is a fresh supply of locally raised beef, poultry and pork to go along with fresh produce. This reflects an overall increase of vendors over the years.
“It’s grown a whole lot,” she said. “It’s grown in amazing ways, really.”
In addition to the success of the market, Macomber enjoys the social atmosphere that descends on downtown Ashland each Saturday from May through October.
“Once the season starts in May we’ll have live music every week and when the weather’s good, people just like to hang out, do their shopping and catch up with friends,” she said.
Brian Sinclair, of King William-based Pampatike Organic Farm, is a relatively new vendor. He said his farm had been waiting for a spot to open up and looked forward to being a part of one of the best-known markets in the region.
“We’d been trying to get in for three years and they finally had an opening last year and we got in,” Sinclair said. “This has been one of the longest running farmers markets that we know of and we were just finally able to produce enough to justify coming up.”
Pampatike raises a variety of produce throughout the growing season, ranging from greens like kale, chard and spinach, to root crops like beets, radishes and turnips, onions and leeks, and green beans and corn. Sinclair also sells eggs harvested from Pampatike’s flock of free-range chickens, which roam about on 127 acres.
Longtime gardener Richard Neely retired two years ago after a 39-year career with Richmond Newspapers and decided to use his hobby as a way to generate some extra retirement income. This season will be the third year he and his wife Paula, of Old Church-based Neely’s Garden, have participated in the market.
Over their time as vendors, Richard Neely said they’ve attracted a fairly loyal customer base, drawn to fresh produce and breads.
“We’ve actually seen incremental increases every year since we started,” he said.
“It’s just a very pleasurable experience. You talk and visit with everybody and it’s like your good friends coming to buy your bread and vegetables.”
The Neelys started out small selling vegetables and plants. Paula then turned to baking and now produces upwards of 70 loaves of bread a week for the market.
At the recent market, Paula had several varieties of bread, including sourdough, deli rye and asiago cheese as well as carrot cake and banana bread.
“It’s a lot more than a hobby now,” Paula said.
She said the difference between her goods and those available at a typical grocer boils down to quality ingredients and a homemade touch.
“You can’t get anything any fresher than this, I think, in a market,” she said.
Richard Neely has been gardening for about 30 years total and started raising vegetables organically about nine years ago. Once he began producing more than he and Paula needed, making the jump to market vendor seemed natural.
“We had a lot of extra vegetables left over and you can’t can but so much,” he said.
Neely’s season starts with cold crops like lettuce, kale and spinach. Later in the season, he expects to have heirloom tomatoes, string beans and more rare vegetables like kikuza squash and malabar spinach.
“We try to introduce different things that no one else here is growing,” he said.
To see for yourself, the Ashland Farmers Market is held every Saturday behind Town Hall from 9 a.m. to noon, May through October. Special event markets include Train Day Nov. 1, the Thanksgiving Market Nov. 22 and a Holiday Market Dec. 6.