Ken Nelson with watermelons and cantaloupes he has available at the Johnson City Farmer's Market. Ken grows all the produce he sells at the market. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story cited an incorrect figure for USDA investment in farmers markets.
When Jeff “Chapo” Stratton first began selling Turkish corbacis, Italian Marconis and African Fataliis a few years ago, many of his customers had never heard of such things.
Now, he has created aficionados of pepper perfection through Chapo’s Chile Patch, a small pepper-growing operation out of Jonesborough he runs with his wife, Jolene.
“Our biggest thing is we’re educating people,” Stratton said. “I’m educating people that there’s more to life than jalapeños and green bell peppers.”
Chapo’s is among the many vendors at the Johnson City Farmers Market. Most farmers who set up there sell vegetables of all kinds, but Stratton only offers peppers, dried peppers and spices made from ground peppers.
He even has the extremely hot ghost peppers, which are almost as hot the Fatalii peppers — notice the similarity to the word “fatal.”
Stratton grows 49 varieties of peppers from 15 countries.
Customers keep coming back for these hot, spicy or sweet vegetables — things they had never considered at one time.
“And two years ago they never heard of it, and now they’re demanding it,” he said.
Rachel Ward, a student in the public health doctoral program at East Tennessee State University, is interested in knowing what role farmers market managers play in securing growers like Chapo’s and other small farmers who offer access to the freshest produce.
This project will be her dissertation work for the next year.
“I wanted to do something that kind of set with the work and research I’ve been doing the last few years,” she said.
Ward was instrumental in starting the ETSU Farmers Market that operates on campus on Thursdays at the beginning of the fall and end of the spring semesters.
The USDA invested $4 million in farmers' market enhancements over 2 years, Ward said.
As a doctoral student in public health, that figure caught her eye because part of the focus for public health is ensuring access to healthier food options for minorities and low-income households.
Ward compiled data articulating the importance of her research project as it relates to public health.
To begin with, she pointed out that eating fruits and vegetables prevents cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions. She noted that if Americans ate just one more serving of fruit or vegetables each day, an estimated $5 billion in health care costs would be prevented and more than 30,000 people who die from heart disease and stroke each year would not.
Ward also said that low-income families are less likely to live near grocery stores where fresh produce is accessible and affordable.
While preparing for this project, Ward noticed a gap in the research regarding leadership development among farmers market managers.
So, she wanted to know if there’s a relationship between how a farmers market manager sees their role at the market and the kinds of produce available to customers who shop there.
Not only can a farmers market manager influence the kinds of produce available, but she or he can also affect the small farming economy, Ward said.
“I think what we’ll find is that the manager actually does play a key role in how the funding that is funneled through the federal government is used,” Ward said. “And so I think what I’ll find is that we’ve overlooked a key piece in the puzzle and that the people with the greatest responsibility for implementing these goals have been overlooked. They can really address gaps in access to healthy foods.”
Ensuring the managers understand and recognize the role they play in supporting local small farmers and ensuring nutritional variety at the markets is important, Ward said.
Sara Perry, from Elizabethton, was shopping for fresh vegetables at the Johnson City Farmers Market on Wednesday morning with her young son, Michael. For her, shopping there is all about freshness and supporting the local farming economy.
“I like to shop local,” Perry said. “And the way I see it, when you buy locally ... (from small farmers) you’re helping support their family.
“And it’s so much fresher when you buy locally. It’s got so much less of an environmental impact when you buy locally.”