Saturday mornings are for sleeping in, lingering at home in your pajamas, leisurely drinking a warm cup of coffee, and then making your way to the farmer's market, right? Not so for a market farmer. My Saturdays begin when the sky is black and the birds, still fast asleep, have not even considered their morning song. I groggily get dressed and gulp down a few sips of coffee before getting behind the wheel of the truck and heading to Birmingham. I choose a fast-paced playlist, loud enough to keep me focused.
If the sky is clear, I’ll enjoy a colorful sunrise just before pulling into the designated Snow’s Bend corner of the Market at Pepper Place. Many of my fellow farmers have had to wake up much earlier and drive farther than I have. A busy market is worth it for us. In late May through July, we earn the money that will keep us going through the winter. For months now, we have worked hard growing the food, we have spent days harvesting and washing it, and hours packing, driving, and setting up before the opening bell rings.
David and I were introduced to farmer’s markets while we were interns. Our Saturday mornings then were spent at the bustling Seattle area farmer’s market we attended in Redmond, Washington. We quickly realized that we loved talking about food, sharing recipes, and trading with other vendors. Daily revelations on our plates were slowly converting us to a diet of fresh, organic produce. Once we had taken our first steps down that path, we knew that there was no turning back. We ate salads with smoked tuna piled high on top, eggplant parmesan with fresh tomatoes, perfectly prepared beets with thyme and goat cheese, and we made pancakes from scratch with fresh raspberries. Our market neighbor, Les, specialized in tomato plants, garlic, and apples. The many distinct varieties of each of these amazed us. Gravenstien apples and Korean Rocambole garlic were stand outs. Les gave us our first tomato plants and we grew them in whiskey barrels outside of our intern trailer.
setting up at the Tuscaloosa market our first year
Once we were back in Alabama and had started our own farm, we were excited to take what we had grown to the market. In Tuscaloosa, at that time, the Tuscaloosa Farmer’s Market was run by the Truck Grower’s Association. The “under-the-bridge market”, as we referred to it, was indeed under an overpass. This market was a remnant of the old, sell out of the back of your truck style market of the 1970s. Typically, there was about one customer for every 5 or 6 farmers. A new customer would arrive and all of the farmers would be watching them to see who they would buy from. It was awkward. The very first day a farmer there told me that she really just came down to “talk with my kinfolk”.
our first Pepper Place market in 2004
In mid-May of our first year, after many discouraging Saturdays at the Tuscaloosa market, The Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham opened and we were ready! That first day, we sold out of everything except for a couple of bunches of radishes and a few tomato plants. It seemed like we might actually be able to pull off this farming gig! Customers were hungry for our produce and the response in the following weeks was encouraging.
In our early years, it was only David and I, working every minute, side by side. We would break up the long Friday harvest; gathering greens and roots early in the morning and return to the field for tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, basil, and zinnias in the late afternoon. During the hottest part of the day we would wash the greens and bunch root vegetables in our shaded packing area. Flowers were always the last thing we would pick. The air would begin to cool and dusk would settle on the farm. That is when we would crack open the cold beers for the home stretch.
One Friday in those early years, before a big farmer's market, we had completed the morning harvest and needed to return for those high dollar afternoon items. The hand-me-down suburban we were driving at the time decided it did not want to accelerate forward. It would, however, drive in reverse. We were at our cabin, which is on top of a hill, and the fields are down by the river. The road leading down is a steep and winding dirt road. David, determined as he is, decided he could drive down this road to the field backwards. I chose to walk. He did make it down, we got the harvest in, and a family member was able to lend us their truck for travel to market the next day.
There have been dead batteries at 5 am with a truck full of produce, flat tires on the interstate, and alarms not going off, but once we arrive at our market tent, there is a rush of excitement. Sharing the fruits of our labor with people that appreciate it makes it all worthwhile.
David loading for market in 2005
Packing the vehicles for market in the peak season is a skill that David mastered early on. It is a large-scale, 3-D game of Tetris, where everything must fit together perfectly. Buckets of flowers, especially the top-heavy sunflowers and cockscomb, must be packed last and secured so that as we make the bumpy, wide turn out of the gate they do not fall over. Unpacking at our booth Saturday morning is reminiscent of a clown car unloading. Instead of clowns though, it is coolers of lettuce, kale, chard, carrots, and beets; boxes of squash, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, and melons; buckets of basil and bouquets.
Farmer’s markets are like heaven to me. Being surrounded by real food and the people that produced it, everyone seems happy there. All morning long we talk about food, what we are cooking, what is being harvested for next week, how is the rain or lack thereof effecting things, how is your cat? Over our 16 years of attending farmer’s markets, David and I have watched children grow up one Saturday at a time, we have watched couples get married and grow families of their own, and we have made the strong friendships that began with a ‘Good morning’ shared over a pile of radishes or box of cucumbers.
When the market bell rings again at noon, signaling its close, there is a rush to pack up. When we push the four corners of the white market tent together, a feeling of contentment washes over us. We smile.
There is a strong camaraderie among farmers. It is a challenging occupation and one that leaves us spread far and wide with little time for socializing. Saturdays at noon we are gathered in one place and have the opportunity to catch up over a beer and lunch, if we are not already all talked out and completely exhausted. We discuss the market, how our crops are doing, our success and our struggles. Just as I feel we have the best customers; I also know that we have the best colleagues.
my favorite post-market meal
The moment I am packed back up and on the return trip to the farm, whatever energy I thought that I had, vanishes. All day long I have talked about cooking and eating and dreamed up lavish dishes to prepare that evening. However, by the time the truck is unloaded and everything put away, it is well into the afternoon and I have bottomed out. I opt for slices of fresh baguette spread with local goat cheese, topped with leaves of basil, slices of tomato, and sprinkled with salt. I wash this down with a cool glass of Rose and escape into a movie, falling asleep before 8 pm. This continues to be our Saturday after-market ritual, but our movie choices now are in the G-rated category and we have our children snuggled up with us.
Post-market 'American Gothic' circa 2006
Eight years ago, Tuscaloosa built a beautiful new facility to house the Tuscaloosa River Market and we have been there every Saturday since.
There is so much more to the farmer's market than the produce.
Come and see for yourself, and be sure you take home a tomato!
Tuscaloosa River Market
The Market at Pepper Place
NEWS FROM THE BEND
From planting time to the growing and harvesting seasons,