When it comes to farmers markets, the Gainesville Farmers Market on the downtown Gainesville square is the real deal. Friday, June 21, marks the 11th summer for the market, and it has continued to grow since its first year in 2009 when it took up just nine parking spots on the fourth side of the square.
“It was good,” said Steve Thomas, market manager. “People came and word spread.”
Ever since then, Thomas has been able to grow the market. He moved from those nine parking spots to the entire lot on the fourth side of the square. The market bounced around the square for a bit, and now it has vendors set up around the square and in the middle under the shade. He has included cooking demonstrations over the years and even live music. And one thing the market is never without is fresh produce.
It hasn’t been easy, and it’s not something with which Thomas had experience when he began. But it was something he knew he wanted to see after moving to the area.
“I never had a downtown,” Thomas said. “I grew up in downtown Manhattan, but that's a big place. Then I moved to Atlanta, which was like the smallest place I ever lived, then Gainesville, and it was like moving into a Jimmy Stewart movie. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, we've got this wonderful downtown square, we need to do something with it.’”
One of the first vendors he brought out was Shook’s Family Farm. They’re still around today, selling fresh vegetables under the cherry trees surrounding Old Joe.
“You make friends and you get to know people and we just love it,” Thelma Shook, co-owner of the farm with her husband, Michael, said about the Gainesville Farmers Market. “We love being around people and seeing people come back each year to see us. And we hope we have a good product. They seem to enjoy what we bring to the market and we always try to bring something different you don’t usually find in the grocery store.”
This week, that means she’ll have purple beans. But they have the tried-and-true favorites like heirloom tomatoes, potatoes and green beans, when it’s time for their harvest, too.
The farm has been able to stay successful at the farmers market by making sure everything it has for sale is fresh.
“This stuff is picked the day before or the day of,” Shook said. “If we get up real early, we pick certain things and take it right to the market. So it’s about the freshest you can get.”
That’s something Cliff Porter, owner of Jarhead Farm, which grows peppers in Toccoa, said is most important. He doesn't sell at the Gainesville Farmers Market, but as an inspector for Certified Naturally Grown, he knows his stuff.
“It’s got to be picked the day of or the evening before the market and kept cool and fresh,” Porter said.
If that’s not the case with farmers at local farmers markets, Porter said there’s no difference between that and what can be found at the store and the farmers market will fail.
“I think that makes a huge difference,” Porter said. “Because what people are getting at the supermarket, people are getting more and more disappointed with it.”
Shook’s Family Farm uses its fresh produce to build relationships at the Gainesville Farmers Market.
“I think that’s what keeps us coming back,” Shook said. “You go and you see ‘Joe’ and you see ‘Jim’ and you know those people … it’s just like going back and seeing family.”
Porter said that kind of attitude is another important aspect of farmers markets.
“You just have to have vendors that are going to be there, be dependable and what you find is that you build a good customer base and get to know these customers very well,” Porter said. “You get to know their kids and it becomes a family thing and that builds the market.”
Thomas has been able to build that family through trial and error. No one can apply for the Gainesville Farmers Market because a few years into being market manager, he found it was best to hand-pick each vendor.
Gainesville Farmers Market
When: 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. Fridays through Oct. 4
Where: Downtown Gainesville square
More info: www.hallfarmers.org
“What we'll have is personal invitations based on trust and a handshake,” Thomas said. “And we'll have one rule at the market, instead of a whole bunch of rules, and that will be the golden rule: Treat other people the way that you want to be treated yourself.”
That mindset seems to work.
In its 11th year, Thomas is still pushing it along with the help of vendors offering quality products.
“The reason I'm still here is the farmers,” Thomas said. “They're just such nice people … And then for me, we're a volunteer community and this is my volunteer community service.”