By Christie Gilmer
[singlepic id=252 w=320 h=240 float=left]When Lori Greene, her sister Sue Easley, and their friend Robin Rodriguez first came up with the idea for the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market last fall, their plans were ambitious. Not only did they want to start a new farmers market in Midtown, but they also wanted to make sure their venture had a mission of bringing together different parts of Memphis and of reaching out to nearby neighborhoods that don’t have much access to fresh, healthy, locally grown, and affordable food.
“The word community is in our name for a reason,” says Lori Greene, a farmer herself, “because in addition to giving shoppers access to the best that local farmers and artisans have to offer, we also want to provide a meeting ground for people to come together on a Saturday morning and talk about anything. From recipes to ideas for creating more good things in Memphis. We want to foster community.”
First Congregational Church was their first choice for location. “We saw First Congo as the natural place to have the market, because of their dedication to social justice,” says Greene, who used to live in Cooper-Young and has an alter ego as the punk rock singer Lorette Velvette. “Also, First Congo has that large parking lot in the heart of Cooper-Young, and we knew they would probably be open to what we wanted to do. We also saw they had partners inside the building that fit perfectly with our approach, including the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center and Grow Memphis.”
[singlepic id=264 w=320 h=240 float=right]The three were soon joined by a team of more than 40 volunteers, including board members, committee chairs, and professionals providing pro bono services. After months of planning and negotiating city permits and health department regulations, the market was ready for its debut on Saturday, May 1.
The night before, however, historic rains flooded homes and roads all over the city and the surrounding countryside. Still, at 7 am on that stormy Saturday morning, a dedicated group of volunteers and intrepid farmers showed up at the First Congo parking lot and set up for business.
“People had emailed me and called,” says Greene, when they heard about the bad weather coming and asked if the first market was still on, “and I said we would be there, even if it was pouring down rain. I told them if a tornado was coming right toward us, we would be there, but we might be inside the church hunkered down.” That kind of spirit is what it takes to get a farmers market up and running.
It also takes shoppers who are hungry for their locally grown food the market offers. Despite the bad weather on that first day, almost all of the customers who had signed up for Greene’s Community Supported Agriculture program came to collect the weekly supply of produce from her farm in Olive Hill, Tennessee. “When I saw my CSA customers come to pick up their bags even in that terrible weather, I knew we had a dedicated customer base. I was so happy to see that it wasn’t just the vendors and volunteers who were committed to this market succeeding, shoppers were also dedicated to supporting it.
“It takes all three to create a thriving farmers market. “It’s a dance between the farmer growing the food, the market selling it, and the person buying it,” says Greene. “The customer is an equal partner in the growing cycle.” So, customers who want to eat the freshest possible food, that is locally grown, have to get used to the idea that certain foods are available only at certain times of the year, unlike in the grocery where we can buy berries in winter that are grown in Argentina and shipped to Memphis. “There is an ebb and flow,” says Greene.
After a startup month to get their feet wet (literally, on that first day), market organizers have designated June 5 as the market’s opening celebration. On that day, and for the rest of the season, all the market stalls will be full with local farmers and urban gardeners (including community gardeners from Grow Memphis) selling fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, and prepared food, as well as artisans selling their wares and community groups raising awareness of their causes. There will be special music, performances, kids activities, coffee from Otherlands, and cooking and growing demonstrations. The market also boasts Memphis’ only Dog Valet dog sitting service (started with help from Dogs Rule).
Greene says the market has a perfect synergy with Cooper-Young. “We are encouraging people to walk or bike to the market and then to go over and get lunch at the great nearby restaurants, go get books at Burke’s, or visit other shops along Cooper.” She says not only are there great chefs in Cooper-Young who will shop at the market, but the neighborhood’s attitude and diversity is what attracted many of the farmers and food producers. “A lot of farmers and urban gardeners are very interested in food justice issues and also they like the laid-back, low-key feeling of Cooper-Young. We hope the market can become a place that brings everyone together. We want people to come out, meet their neighbors, get to know people around them and not just be isolated in their houses.”
The Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market runs every Saturday from 8 am–1 pm through October 30th. You can get more information about the market on their Facebook page, Twitter and website www.cycfarmersmarket.org.