Despite steady commercial and residential development over the last 30 years, the Johnson City area holds fast to its rural roots. True, some of the old family farms have given way to big box stores, but renewed interest in eating locally grown food has attracted a new generation of farmers, raising everything from herbs to grass-fed beef.
The area’s two major farmers markets are outlets for these growers, along with bakers, crafters and some traditional farmers. This week both the Johnson City and Jonesborough farmers markets will open for the season.
In 1976, the Johnson City Farmer’s Market began as a cooperative effort between markets in Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol. It operated out of the parking lot of St. John’s Episcopal Church on North Roan Street, until moving to its current location in 2003. Now in the more spacious city-owned parking lot at South Roan Street and State of Franklin Road, the market features between 40 to 60 vendors during the summer and draws thousands of customers.
“At the height of the summer, during July and August, we have upwards of 3,500 to 4,000 people coming through on a Saturday and 1,500 to 2,000 on a Wednesday,” said Blair Eldred, president of the market. There would be even more vendors, he added, if the market had not set limits in 2011 on the number of arts, crafts and concessions sold.
The market is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. May through November and from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of the month from November to April. The winter market was added this year.
The Johnson City Farmer’s Market follows the 50/50 rule, in keeping with state sales tax laws, Eldred said. “As long as the farmers grow 50 percent of what they sell, they can bring in 50 percent outside produce.”
Items for sale include produce, plants, arts and crafts, concessions, meats, baked goods — including the popular Auntie Ruth’s doughnuts — and cheese. Eldred describes the market’s vendors as “traditional farmers,” some of whom have been with the market since it started. There’s also been an uptick in the number of specialty growers.
At the Jonesborough Farmers Market, specialty growers are its lifeblood. Beginning with eight vendors when it opened in 2008, the market grew to a peak of 37 vendors this past summer, with an average of 25 on any given Saturday.
The Jonesborough market operates by the 100 percent rule. “Our rules are you can’t resell anything,” said Karen Childress, market manager. “You have to produce it yourself.”
The mix includes microgreens, lettuce, shiitake mushrooms, honey, jellies and jams, lamb and beef, eggs, plants, 47 kinds of chili peppers and other seasonal items. Many of the growers eschew chemicals and pesticides, and customers are free to ask if they have concerns. The same applies to the Johnson City market.
Crafters and bakers offer homemade wares, including artisan breads and desserts.
The Jonesborough market, which is held on the east side of the Washington County courthouse in downtown Jonesborough, combines traditional farming with specialty growers.
“We’ve got a pretty good mix leaning toward a new generation of backyard entrepreneurs,” Childress said. “Our applicants tend to be younger, definitely on the entrepreneurial side.”
The market is open Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon May through October. Online ordering begins in November and runs through April.
Childress expects to open the market Saturday with as many as 30 vendors, up from 23 last year. New additions include more produce growers, including a USDA-certified organic grower, a sausage and pork vendor who makes handmade sausages in their own Tennessee Department of Agriculture-inspected facility, and a grass-fed beef vendor who will be at the market twice a month.
Asked what to expect on opening day, Childress said, “Customers will find several varieties of lettuce, salad mix, kale, mustard and turnip greens, radishes, bunching onions, baby bok choi, fresh and dried shitake mushrooms, Earlyglow strawberries, leeks and eggs — all sizes and colors, large to small, blue, green and brown.”
In addition, there will be animal-welfare-approved lamb cuts, sausages and pork cuts, goat cheeses, honey, breads, cupcakes, jams and jellies, crafts, kitchen items and plants.
A third farmers market, at East Tennessee State University, opened April 5. The last market of the spring semester is Thursday; it will reopen in the fall. This new market serves ETSU students, staff and faculty.
Located in the parking area between the D.P. Culp University Center and the Reece Museum, the ETSU Farmers Market is open from 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. on Thursdays. Vendors and farmers must be within 100 miles of the university, organizer Rachel Ward said.
Farmers markets not only offer a way to buy fresh, locally grown food, they also are gathering places, where friends meet for coffee, doughnuts and pastries, or stop to listen to the live music each market features. The sense of community created by the markets is important, both Childress and Eldred said.
“You have the opportunity to talk to the person who grows your food and visit them from week to week, and it naturally develops a lot of relationships and sense of community,” Childress said. “Being able to speak to the person who produced your food is unique. The market is a good place to catch up with people and see people, among the customers. It’s fun and it’s social; you get good food and everybody has good feelings about it.”