A town of many markets

It boggles my mind how many farmers markets Richmond sustains. Also surprising is how many vendors sell at several or nearly all of them. If the idea of a Starbucks on every corner in a major city doesn’t cannibalize the business, does it work the same way for local produce and wares?

As I’ve written before, it boggles my mind how many farmers’ markets Richmond sustains. Also surprising is how many vendors sell at several or nearly all of them. If the idea of a Starbucks on every corner in a major city doesn’t cannibalize the business, does it work the same way for local produce and wares?

Richmonders’ curious reluctance to cross the river might actually be a benefit here. Many of the markets serve a distinct neighborhood, with an individual identity. Some are clearly doing better than others. Because so many are grassroots efforts of the best kind, it can be hard to determine what defines success. Does it have to be profitable? Packed each week? Have lots of vendors? A good web presence? Some have established non profits or churches at their back, others seem like they are struggling to hold on.

The Byrd House Market began as a sleeper hit. Founded in 2007, a part of the William Byrd Community House (WBCH), it is one of multiple programs running hand-in-hand designed to “provide living laboratories for learning nutrition, ecology and economics.”

The Market is not only an income stream for the nonprofit, in operation since 1923, but provides the community a place to come together over a common interest, and showcases the final product of many local artisans and farmers to the children that William Byrd serves. Market manager, Ana Edwards, tells us how the kids learn the whole process: planting, watering, harvesting, composting, selling, and cooking. Both families and the general public are invited to their unique cooking class series called “Cooking as a Second Language” where dishes from a particular region in the world are featured and taught by previous residents of that country, sometimes in their native language.

WBCH also provides food to the children in their early childhood education and after school programs through their Grace Arents Community Garden and Byrd House Farmlet. The recent addition of a beehive has been a unique (and sometimes terrifying/fun) learning experience for the kids. Right off the Downtown Expressway, and serving a mostly minority, urban population, the programs are an extraordinary experiment in urban gardening.

Byrd House Market runs every Tuesday, 3:30-7pm, May thru October at Cherry and Idlewood Avenues. Local restaurant chefs are welcome to have first crack at the produce from 3-3:30pm. The first Tuesday of the month (June 7) will host Byrd Cellars Winery in the Mulberry Tree Cafe. The market is currently recruiting musicians, poets, jugglers, or other performers. Email byrdhousemarket@gmail.com or call (804) 643-2717.

Two of the areas’ markets are tied to local churches, one with more success than the other.

Monument Market is run by Fan institution, First Baptist Church, at the corner of Monument and Robinson every Saturday, 8am – Noon. You’d hardly know the church was involved though; you have to scroll to the bottom of their homepage and hunt for the tiny link to the Market page. Despite local food bloggers advocating for it, Monument seems to struggle the most. A lack of water and electrical access makes it difficult for prepared food and drink vendors. With only a handful of tents in a large space, Monument feels like a ghost town. It’s a chicken-and-egg argument about what is needed to make it work: more vendors, or more visitors. As one of the newest markets pulling from the same set of vendors, it may be the bursting of the market bubble, though five new vendors are newly listed, all crafts/retail. Perhaps that could be their niche.

Children are encouraged to vend their own wares and actually have a dedicated Children’s Market the second Saturday of each month, selling everything from drinks, cookies, jewelry, plants, and crafts, not unlike the adults. Their site encourages budding entrepreneurs to apply for a spot online.

On the other hand, the second largest market in town with about 51 vendors each Saturday is the St. Stephen’s Market at Grove and Three Chopt. Probably the second most popular, they even have their own merchandise. The church website prominently displays their market in the top navigation tabs. They have an intentional statement linking the market to their church:

The Farmers Market at St. Stephen’s seeks to connect our choices about the foods we buy and eat to our call to be stewards of God’s creation, as we build community and support local farmers.

The area’s largest and most popular market, South of the James, at 42nd and New Kent Avenues near Forest Hill Park, seems to be the thing Richmonders are most willing to cross the river and pay a toll for. I’m a huge fan of any place where I can get tacos, fresh basil, and local coffee, run into friends and coworkers alike, looking a little grungy, sometimes hungover and usually sweaty, all while dodging strollers and dogs.

Even with multiple growers and CSA’s though, it seems most of the market offerings are all pretty much the same, which is partially related to growing season. South of the James (SOTJ) offers a handy chart on their site of what grows each month.

The SOTJ is run by the Market Umbrella, which is owned and operated by Karen Atkinson, along with an operations committee comprised of vendors with marketing, accounting, sales, and computer experience. They also have a shiny new website. Previously, Atkinson was market manager of the William Byrd Community House Market (two degrees of separation in Richmond, I tell you!). Notoriously hard to get a hold of, you’ll likely find her on Saturdays roaming, watching over her vendors.

Starting in June, all Market Umbrella markets will accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) cards. Previously known as food stamps, the debit card program is used by those who receive governmental food assistance. Retailers must apply to be a recipient. The little pink tent in the center of the market on Saturdays will swipe cards and give tokens that can be used to purchase food from individual vendors.

The market is offering other special events like a free market walk with natural foods and healing educator, Elli Sparks. On Saturday, June 11 from 8-9am, visitors will discuss grass-fed and pasture-raised animals, and sustainable agriculture.

With 84 vendors, SOTJ has more to see this year than ever before, and things are selling out earlier. Both Blanchard’s Coffee and Crossroads Coffee & Ice Cream have gone through a dozen or more gallons of milk and iced coffee before 10 am–and even more ice. Nate’s Taco Truck often sells out of his popular chicken and beef tacos.

Attendees have started arriving even earlier than the 8 am start date to get their fresh farm eggs and meat before their fellow shoppers. I’ve got to start getting up earlier so I might actually find some basil. Rumor has it that Mamma Zu’s owner Ed Vasaio sends out his team at the crack-of-market opening to buy up all the basil for his restaurants. Though the market is slated to close at noon, because there’s still so much traffic, the vendors have been staying later too.

All the usual suspects are there, but one vendor, Adventures in T-Shirt Land caught my attention with their graphic, silk screened Richmond-centric tops. As I got closer, I noticed one with an unusual slogan,

A pretty o.k. place

While I was standing there wondering what that meant exactly, I overheard the same inquiry from the person next to me. The female vendor behind the table explained how she and her partner had been stuck in Richmond and how they don’t really care for it and had been trying to leave, and so she figured she’d make a shirt about it.

The woman who asked seemed taken aback, and so did I. That was the worst pitch I could think of anyone giving at a place that was so clearly pro-Richmond and full of folks who loved the city and supporting local products.

No matter what your preference, there’s a farmers market out there for most neighborhoods. It seems the area can sustain multiple and nearly identical markets for now. Those that are successful have done so by carving out a niche, either by offering a place for children, being open on a different day, or reaching out to a broader audience. Either way, paying attention to where our food comes from, supporting local business, and sharing in community are all good things, and something that other sectors of the city could take a cue from.


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Holly Gordon

Holly Gordon spends her days working with Richmond’s hearty nonprofit community and her nights singing in a community chorus. She loves her feminist book club, and is always distracted by shiny things.

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