At our farmers’ market this weekend, setting up our tent, and watching those around us set up theirs, it occurred to me: farmers’ markets hold an element of the miraculous.
Consider the scene.
Grown-ups, in various stages of adulthood from barely at the legal drinking age to well into retirement, and from many walks of life, come together to create a temporary mall. For many of the people here, us included, this day provides the majority of their income for the week.
These folks already live off-the-grid, employment-wise. Vendors participating in a market chose professions of self-employment. They deliberately took on the risky yet liberating world of solo-work over the day-in, day-out safe space of traditional employment.
People of this ilk might be described as “scrappy,” “independent,” “determined,” “ballsy,” or “bull-headed.”
Take all these folks, give them each a 10×10 foot space in which to work, ask them to set up next to direct competitors, and to do it all before 9am on a Saturday.
The fact there aren’t weekly fistfights during each set-up is amazing.
That’s not what happens at all. Instead, I watch one truck pull up, a few minutes late. In her mid-60s, Janice farms alone, and every Saturday makes an hour and a half long drive from Kentucky, one-way, to participate in this market. Where she lives doesn’t offer anything comparable. Starting her day at 5am, to load-up and head to market, work until 2pm, then load back up, and take the 90 minute trip back home happens to be the most profitable option for her.
The farmers around her are set up already. Jim and another farmer, our friend Brian, jump in to help Janice unload her tent, coolers, tables, baskets, and other gear to the sidewalk. As soon as her vehicle is unloaded, she hops back in her truck, and parks off-site. She will walk back and then sets up, thus keeping the line of cars waiting to pull in, and mark their own space, moving. Everybody helps, everybody wins.
Market Square, Market Street, and Union Ave become a place of cooperation, collaboration, and camaraderie.
This magical land did not appear on its own. Every step of this dance, from the 7am start time, to the non-negotiable 2pm break down, originates from a source.
The market managers lay the stage, create the script, and direct the scene.
With clear, weekly emails, a Vendor Handbook as thick as an Ernest Hemingway novella, and a demanding application process, the Market Square Farmers’ Market takes itself, and it’s role in our local food community seriously.
The magic lies in the diligence, the dedication, and the rules created and enforced by the market staff.
When this farmers’ market opened in 2004, about 10 vendors set up on the concrete-floor stage at the center of Market Square. Sixteen years later, the market roster boasts up to 150 vendors, with anywhere from 70 to 120 different small businesses participating every week, over a 3-street radius.
Market Square’s inception and incarnation started with a team of volunteers. That team shifted to a 501(c)3 non-profit in 2014, currently employing 4 permanent staff, 1 AmeriCorps VISTA, and 1 grant-funded position, along with a full board of directors, and 3 dedicated market volunteers.
In its first year, Market Square Farmers’ Market opened Saturdays, May through November. In 2005 they ventured into a Wednesday market as well, and in 2007 they expanded to include a holiday market in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
It now oversees two Market Square Farmers’ Markets, the New Harvest Park’s Thursday Farmers’ Market, a shorter-seasoned Sunday farmers’ market, a winter farmers’ market, along with the holiday market, and a few swanky fundraisers per year.
This started on a stage in 2004, with a few volunteers who believed passionately in this dream to offer farmers a place to sell their vegetables, meats, dairy, and eggs directly to the public here in Knoxville.
Whether or not Charlotte Tolley, the market’s original leader and now executive director, intended to grow this market to the scope and size it is, I couldn’t tell you. I worked for Nourish Knoxville from August of 2016 through August 2017, and saw some of the inner-workings of the group responsible for this tremendous gift to our farming community. The job was temporary, made possible through grant-funding, and it catapulted me up one more rung of the local food ladder, putting me that much closer to all the goodness the land here in East Tennessee offers.
This firsthand experience of the market gives me an entirely new appreciation for what happens here in Market Square, each Saturday morning. There’s a mystique of walking into a space, with all the pieces and players in place.
There’s a magic to watching those pieces and players come together.
Saturday mornings, at 6:45am, walking up to Market Square, before the market started, I felt chills nearly every time. Like a circus before the workers erect the big-top, here sat the opening scene of a show we carried out over the next 5 hours. By the time shoppers arrived, the market is affixed to the place, nearly seamless in how well tethered to the space it is. That none of this existed only 2 hours earlier rarely occurs to patrons. It certainly never occurred to me before this job.
Vision provides a tricky lens through which to look. Had Charlotte, on that stage in 2004, held this scene in her mind, would she have been able to live into what she saw? She’s one of the most determined people I’ve ever met, and yet I doubt it. Were she given some divination into 15 and 16 years later, the weight of that might prove more stressful than helpful.
If God lifts the curtain, and shows the plans He has, can your human mind grasp it? Perhaps if you’re an old Testament prophet you could, though I’d point out, those fellas were typically the messenger, not the ones spear-heading the campaign.
The dream and the step-by-step work produced this market today. Holding a vision, bent towards helping farmers, with the limited space, resources, and workers available, slowly a reality took shape. Slowly, slowly, slowly, one step, then the next, then a reach, then the next.
As first a shopper, then an employee, and now a vendor of this market, I have such a strong affection for it. These days, the crush of the crowd threatens to overwhelm my more introverted sensibilities. It’s a far better fit to find me behind the table in a booth, selling products we’ve grown, versus helping to pilot the direction of the market itself. I prefer to have my hands on the everyday work position; we need the Charlottes of the world to provide the “scope for imagination” as Anne says, in Anne of Green Gables, to forward this kind of dream.
We don’t have to go big or go home to get started, friends. This isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, following dreams, and seeing where a vision takes you.
The market started because some scrappy, and, because I know them, I’ll add, ballsy folks took what was available and got going. Time, energy, and showing up at the appointed time, at the appointed place, each week propelled that teensy market from there to here.
So today, if you don’t have every step in place, don’t worry about it. You have a vision, or a desire, and that’s what you need to get going.
As someone who would L-O-V-E to have my own, personal, OT prophet regularly texting me the next thing ’bout to happen, this is hard advice for me to chew. This means, I need real life stories to tether me back to earth as much if not more than anyone. I need those practical life application tips these stories provide.
Have the dream.
Let go of knowing the whole dream.
Stretch when needed.
Stretch when you don’t want to.
Stick to it.
Something good will happen.
These words are encouraging me today. Sharing them here with y’all seems like a good next step. Got your dream? Excellent. Get your volunteers in place, find your concrete-stage, and see what you can produce.
Magic happens. I see it every Saturday.
Got a story of your own to share where dreams and little steps made something good? I’d love to hear it! Trust me, I need all the stories I can get. And if you have had any prophet moments, please toss that in here. I haven’t entirely given up on getting my own Samuel at some point.