Saturday Morning at the Farmers Market
Folks who grew up in Alabama a half century ago likely can remember seeing farmers gathered around the town square on Saturday mornings, peddling anything from pole beans to hunting dogs. But as customers began to sacrifice freshness for the sake of convenience, Saturday markets slowly were replaced by superstores.Today, however, shoppers once again are discovering the joy of visiting a farmers market, thanks to revitalization efforts under way in downtown Mobile and the Lakeview district of Birmingham. Most Saturday mornings during the summer, Government Street Market in Mobile and Pepper Place Saturday Market in Birmingham welcome about 2,000 customers each.They come pushing strollers (and walkers) to shop among the 30 or so white tents, where local farmers proudly display their harvests. Many chat with the growers as they make their selections, while others take the time to enjoy a fresh-baked pastry or a cup of coffee. By the time they leave, most shoppers are laden with multiple sacks of fresh fruits and vegetables.Wanda Anderson, coordinator of the Pepper Place Saturday Market, said she’s been amazed at how early people will come to the market in order to get fresh produce.”Our customers know that the vegetables and herbs have just been picked, and they are so much fresher and prettier than what you can buy in the grocery store,” she said. “People will come at 7:30 and have breakfast. They’ll buy their produce, listen to the music, and maybe even stay for lunch. Some of them stay all day.”Now in its third season, Pepper Place Saturday Market features weekly cooking demonstrations from some of Birmingham’s top chefs and live musical entertainment by local artists. Products for sale include everything from tomatoes and squash to organic honey and goat cheese.Anderson said the cooking demonstrations not only entertain the shoppers, but also promote the use of locally grown produce.”We are exposing our talented chefs and their recipes to the community,” she said. “The demonstrations encourage customers to use Alabama-grown produce and herbs. They also give the customers a chance to talk one on one with the chefs.”Blount County farmer Danny Jones manages the farmers market on Finley Avenue in Birmingham, but his family also sells produce at Pepper Place. He said the Saturday market has helped farmers at both locations.”It’s been a good thing for the big (Finley Avenue) market. Anytime you flood a market, the price goes down,” Jones said. “Pepper Place gives the smaller farmers a place to sell their produce, and it attracts customers who wouldn’t shop at the big market.”Farmers say the same is true at Mobile’s Government Street market. Before the Saturday market opened, Bud Deakle of Grand Bay used to drive to Gulfport, Miss., to sell his produce. He credited the Farmers Market Nutrition Program–which provides vouchers to the poor and elderly for the purchase of fresh produce–for much of the market’s success. “I guess our business is about half vouchers and half cash,” Deakle said. “It has been very successful so far, especially for the smaller farmers.”
John and Elsie Kane of Elberta are school teachers by trade, but during the summer they work from sunup ’til sundown at their other passion–farming.
For them, the Government Street Market has been rewarding both financially and socially.”It gives us more exposure. At city markets like this, you get to know the people better, so they come back,” John said. “Some of them even come out to the farm to buy canning tomatoes–even though it’s 40 miles from here.”We also are seeing a younger group of customers,” he added. “This is more of a family atmosphere. There’s no pressure to buy, and the growers take time to talk to the customers and exchange ideas.”Anderson enjoys the interaction between the customers and farmers at Pepper Place. “To get up at the crack of dawn for 18 Saturdays during the summer, you have to love it,” she laughed. “It’s incredible to me how hard these farmers work. Some of them drive three hours to be here and setup by 6 o’clock, then they go to the Finley market in the afternoon and back home to pick after that.”At Government Street, shoppers can indulge in a selection of fresh produce including strawberries, watermelons, peas, potatoes and cucumbers. There’s also wine from Perdido Vineyards and fresh-baked bread from the Bakery Café. Like Pepper Place, the Government Street Market offers special activities to enhance the shopping experience. For the children, there’s a Kid’s Club that features a market-related craft each week. This year, children have painted flowerpots, planted tomato plants, made huge flowers from tissue paper and painted market bags.The market also features live entertainment by local musician Kristy Lee and educational activities like a class on flower arranging and a popular program called “Shop with the Chef.””We want it to be a different experience, every time you come to the market,” said Government Street Market Coordinator Marylon Barkan.Despite the laid-back mood of the market, business is brisk, said Jerry Turner of Citronelle, as he propped against his truck on a steamy July morning. “We tried the market for the first time last weekend and decided to come back. So far, we’ve sold half a truckload of watermelons in about two hours,” Turner said.Joe Hudson is a frequent Government Street customer. He prefers to shop there because all the produce is home grown.”They have a variety of produce from all over south Alabama. We’ve got people bringing goods in here from other cities. A lot of the markets you go to have a lot of imported produce. It’s also convenient for people who might not have transportation.”Jennifer Hudson said the market is unique because the growers will let customers sample the produce before they buy.”I don’t know of any other place you can go where they will let you do that,” she said.Grand Bay producer Art Sessions serves on the Alabama Farmers Federation’s State Horticulture Committee. He said markets like Government Street and Pepper Place have been good for the state’s fruit and vegetable farmers. “It’s certainly helped the smaller farmers, who might not have the volume to compete on the larger, wholesale markets,” Sessions said. “In the future, I would like to see Government Street stay open through the fall. It would be great for our pecan and Satsuma growers, and I think the customers would support it.”The success of the Pepper Place and Government Street markets has not gone unnoticed by other cities looking to revitalize their downtown areas. Anderson said she has received calls from people all over the Southeast who want to emulate the Pepper Place concept. The market also has attracted inquiries from producers as far away as Vermont, but Anderson said Pepper Place is strictly for Alabama producers–and there’s a waiting list for them.”Everybody who sold here last year came back,” Anderson said. “It’s very rewarding. Our farmers and vendors are anxious to be here because they do so well.”Pepper Place Saturday Market
2nd Avenue South Between 28th and 29th Streets, Birmingham, Ala.
Saturdays 7 a.m. — 12 p.m.
June 1 — Sept. 28
www.pepperplace.netGovernment Street Market
300 Government Street, Presbyterian Church Parking Lot, Mobile, Ala.
Saturdays 7:30 a.m. — 11 a.m.
April 20 — Aug. 10