In its sixth year, the Market Square Farmers' Market is growing like a weed—despite rain on four of the five Wednesdays and Saturdays that the market's been open since May 2.
"Already we have 45 vendors at the average market, which is as many as we had in peak season last year," says director Charlotte Tolley. "There are 111 vendors already on our list for this year, though quite a few of them won't start selling until mid-June. We expect to average 70 vendors at our peak in July and August."
Forty-two of those registered as merchants for 2009 will sell farm products, paying $5 per event for a booth. This year, for the first time, the Saturday market has required closing Market Street and Union Avenue to place more booths there. "A lot of our new vendors are farmers who have just started selling direct—they may have been doing just wholesale—or just started to farm," says Tolley. "With all the people losing jobs and changing jobs, more are making the leap into full-time farmer, and they're selling here."
Though wet conditions have made it impossible for some who grow cool-weather produce like lettuce, spinach, or pea greens to pick enough to sell, most spring-crop farmers who have signed on with the market have been showing up and selling out. "Maybe they leave with a few green onions, because everyone has those this time of year, but mostly they sell all they bring," says Tolley. "I can't really figure out why completely. I think it's just reached critical mass. Downtown and the market have kind of grown together. We've built trust in the vendor community—the word has gotten out that we have a supportive customer base, people who will come out in the rain to buy lettuce."
Numbers have also increased among prepared food and bath and body products merchants, who pay $10 per market for a booth, and artisans and craftspeople, who pay $15 per Wednesday market, $20 per Saturday market. "Overall, I'd say we've grown by about a third over 2008," says Tolley.
Surprisingly, the increased competition hasn't harmed individual vendors' sales. "There are definitely a couple more bake shops this year," says Nicole Gibian, who owns Green Man Farm in Washburn with her husband Eric, and for the second year is baking and selling mini-pound cakes, biscotti, muffins, and pound and crumb cake by the slice. "But I'm still usually sold out of baked goods by about one o'clock. I think that's because there's absolutely been an increase of customers, and because I've established a loyal base. In fact, I'm going to make extra of the apple or pear crumb cakes for next week—those just fly out of there."
Tolley's not sure if the dismal economy has a direct correlation to more Knoxvillians opening umbrellas and strolling down to Market Square for fresh-picked produce. "But I think people are maybe not eating out as much. They may be wanting to support their neighbors when they do spend their food money."
Gibian points out that the increased interest in buying from locals dovetails nicely with a national sentiment. "It's amazing, the magazines, NPR—you can't even go to The New York Times online without some kind of chatter about local foods, organic foods, raising your own food," she says. "There has been an increase in garden folks, just in our area, I'd say an increase of 80 percent just over last year. It's really cool. Growing food is becoming an part of everyday life. Before it was the big grocery store that was a part of everyday life, but people around here are changing."