Between the building tops, the gray sky looks too near to be real, like a backdrop for a 1930s movie about a tornado. It's the inland remnant of some hurricane or other, sneezing a drizzle now and then. About 100 people browse the Market Square Farmers' Market, maybe half as many as do when the sky's open and bright. Artisans keep a wary eye on the sky. Preschoolers frolic in the fountains, oblivious.
Farmers' markets have revived all over. Market Square has hosted a farmers' market nearly every year since 1854, but has accepted a couple of unusual new rules: Everything sold here has to be grown in the area, and it all has to be organic. That explains the hippies, maybe. But Jerry Baird's one fellow who'd fit in at any church-parking-lot farmers' market in the South. "I like to trade and swap, wheel and deal," he says. He wears a USDA tractor cap. A former mechanic for an Army Reserves base in Kentucky, he's run a farm near Bean Station on Cherokee Lake for 20 years.
"If you ain't got your health, you ain't got no retirement," he says. "I get up at 5 or 6, eat my organic oatmeal with organic fruit. I'll be 70 years old, and don't take a pill of any kind."
He grows lots of things, but sells heirloom tomatoes today. He handles a fat dark tomato, the color of an internal organ, and cuts it with a sharp old knife. "It's a Cherokee Purple," he says. "Look here. You take the skin off after it's dead ripe, and slice it." Juggling the tomato, he splits a homemade roll the texture of an English muffin. "Now that's a tomato sandwich," he says, as the pink juice leeches into the bread. "This is hog heaven. Take you a bite." You do, and ask to buy the sandwich.
He also sells honey, and when he holds out an upside-down honey bottle toward you, he expects you to put your hand out to accept a drizzle of it for licking purposes. And you do. He says his bees are healthy and fruitful. He suspects chemicals are behind the national bee-population crisis. "I don't use no chemicals on my bees," he says. "I use garlic." So far, he's been here every Wednesday and Saturday this summer, but he's going to have to concentrate on Saturdays. "I've got hickory-cane corn to pick," he says.
Peaches were big in August; now eggplant is coming in, a bitter swap. Whole watermelons are still out, but don't sell as well here; most shoppers aren't buying for big families.
A shaven-headed young man who looks like a movie star's agent is holding a baby, and stops at a booth where an older man is selling a colorful array of peppers. "What kind of habaneros are those?" the young man asks. "They're orange ones," the seller answers.
Jerry Freeman has a mountain-man beard and displays corn and homemade African harps. It turns out the two ngumbi harps work as one instrument, one for each knee, and he brought them to play between sales. He plays, on request, for a young woman in a long print dress. It sounds like happy African tribal music, with shadows of pop influences. "This one reminds me of a Van Morrison tune, kind of a doo-wop," he says.
He has sold almost all of his corn, but has a few honeydews in a small basket to keep them from rolling, and a couple of kohlrabi ("it's like a turnip, but sweeter").
Some look more like businessmen, like Dave Waters, the square's only meat-seller. In a broad-brimmed cloth hat, he works out of the back of a refrigerator truck. He may be the longest-range commuter here. His cattle, pig, and chicken farms are in Meigs County, 65 miles away.
"The market's getting better each year," he says. He likes Market Square because he prefers to deal with customers directly. "We're not into shipping," he says. "We want to hand it to the person."
He says growing meat organically is harder, hence more expensive. Prices range from two bucks for a pork liver to $22.50 for a pound of filet mignon. "But you can taste the difference," he says. "The challenge is to convince people to invest in the food they eat." Some are convinced already. On a good Saturday, he does $1,500 in business.
The vendors start breaking down just after 2 o'clock. One of the most challenging packing jobs is Aaron Wheatley's. The retired Naval auditor is in a mosquito-net tent labeled the Windbell Cottage Flutter Barn, catching butterflies. For two bucks, kids can spend 15 minutes among the butterflies, or buy one, if they promise to free it soon. He and his wife, Laine, whose butterfly-loaning business is based in Halls, don't make a lot of money on the farmer's market itself. "We hope people will remember us when they're planning weddings, funerals, graduations," he says. Their business is releasing them at dramatic moments. Two small children help, with surprising dexterity, to round up the butterflies. They get 34 of the 35 he brought. "One got stepped on," he says a little sadly.
It never did rain much, but they're all aware there's another storm on the way. "Football season is coming," says Waters, and that's not a good thing for these farmers. "People will quit coming. They avoid the traffic."