Any other day, it's just an empty parking lot. But each Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m., the usually barren piece of real estate - located in Chattanooga's Southside - is transformed into the Main Street Farmer's Market.
The weekly event is both homegrown and local, much like the produce each farmer sells. And what began as a CSA pickup - a system where customers pre-pay for the entire season or year and receive weekly distributions - has flourished into something much more.
"It's by far the strongest farmer's market in the area as far as organic," Kenny Burnap, sous chef for St. John's Restaurant down the street. He's braving nearly 100-degree heat in his black chef's jacket to pick through one of the season's first squash crops including the blossoms - a fragile and short-lived delicacy. "I buy a lot from these guys so it makes sense for me to pick up here," he explains, despite his sweaty brow.
In fact the unseasonable heat hasn't stifled the swells of the mid-week crowd, which at half past four has formed a line at Circle S Farm's tent, hoping to catch another round of their strawberries.
Letty Smith, who owns the farm with husband Curtis, rushes to answer questions while simultaneously distributing weekly pickups from her CSA program, which currently has a wait list.
"I like this market because it's short and the people who attend are really committed to buying local and usually naturally grown or organic produce," she explains. While she's yet to apply for organic certification from the USDA, the fruit and vegetables grown on her 70-acre farm in Rising Fawn, Georgia are free from the multitude of pesticides and fertilizers often sprayed on conventional produce.
High heels to hiking shoes brave the gravel lot in search of fresh-picked goodies, including oyster mushrooms from Walden Peak Farm, artisan cheese from Sequatchie Cove Creamery, honey from Sale Creek, organic grits and polenta from Riverview Farm, chicken from Hoe Hop Valley Farm and of course, gobs of fresh vegetables and fruit. This month marks the start of tomato season, which means Signal Mountain Farm owner Thomas O'Neal's famed heirloomswill debut on his table.
The first hour is a mad rush, with eager shoppers hopping from tent to tent, hoping to procure their weekly bounty before it sells out. There aren't any crafts or music...save for one farmer practicing his banjo. "We wanted to create a mid-week market that would complement - not compete with - the Chattanooga Market," explains market manager Padgett Arnold. "We're aiming for something smaller...more grass roots."
Despite this bucolic setting and an ever-rising number of locavores in Chattanooga, being a farmer today is still a hard row to hoe. In addition to the usual environmental challenges like tomato blight or drought, small farming operations must also take on the role of marketer, business manager, mechanic and even plumber when irrigation goes awry. In today's climate, they must be as savvy at fighting off pests and birds as they are at tweeting about their recent bounty. All of these reasons were the impetus for creating the Main Street Market, one of the few farmer-run markets in the area.
"It's an inclusive atmosphere," says Arnold. "We're working together to one common goal, which is strengthening our local food system."
To do so, each participant has access to classes from consultants with the highly successful Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project out of Asheville, North Carolina, thanks in part to a grant from the Benwood Foundation. To sell at the Main Street Market, vendors must be located within 75 miles and be food focused either as a farmer or artisanal food producer, such as Link 41's specialty sausages or Niedlov's freshly baked bread. Much like the bees that pollinate their precious tomato plants, the swarms of customers at local markets are crucial to a farmer's existence. And, just like in nature, the relationship is symbiotic. Customers benefit from easy access to food that is better for both the environment and their health.
"When you buy locally it was usually picked the day of or the day before," says O'Neal. "You're getting higher quality, fresher produce, often at a more affordable price since you're dealing directly with the farmer."
And that is what you call a sweet deal.
Sometimes you just want to relax and enjoy the fruits of other people's labor, and luckily there are numerous spots around town that offer tempting dishes for aspiring locavores. Below is a glimpse
of some kitchens cooking local produce.
212 Market Street ' 423-265-1212
Helping pioneer the locavore movement in Chattanooga, Chef Susan Moses at 212 Market has been buying locally since 1992. Currently working with nearly 30 farms, a classic hit of the season is the watermelon salad tossed with lemon peppercorn vinaigrette, feta, arugula and red onion. Also new this year is the grilled quail glazed with housemade blueberry BBQ sauce and pickled peppers.
NIKO'S SOUTHSIDE GRILLE
1400 Cowart Street ' 423-266-6511
Local farming and sustainable seafood have been a basic tenet of Greek cuisine for centuries. Niko's continues that tradition today with dishes like their grilled Pickett's Farm trout served over River View Farm grit cakes with seasonal vegetables, or skewered pork souvlaki from River Ridge Farm.
232 East 11th St, Suite 150 ' 423-756-8253
Local ingredients have always been a cornerstone of Table 2's menu, but lately Chef Eric Taslimi has noticed a bumper crop of options. Some of his favorites include Crabtree, Circle S and Signal Mountain Farms for produce, River Ridge Farms for grass-fed beef and Walden Peak for mushrooms. Some summer dishes to look for include his ratatouille, made with local peppers, tomatoes and eggplant, and the heirloom tomato salad.
EASY BISTRO & BAR
203 Broad Street ' 423-266-1121
Chef Erik Niel adopts a regional food philosophy, accompanying his fresh Gulf seafood with local delicacies such as Signal Mountain Farm's heirloom tomatoes or River Ridge Pork. This summer, look for the potato mascarpone ravioli, topped with peaches, capers, lemon, brown butter and lump blue crab meat.
LUPI'S PIZZA PIES
Various Locations ' 423-266-5874
This homegrown pizza chain keeps nearby farmers busy with its four locations. When available, Sonrisa Farms supplies the wheat for their whole wheat dough while Sale Creek Honey Company gives it that trademark sweetness. Tomatoes, green peppers, sausage, ground beef, cheddar cheese, basil and mushrooms from area farms also make for a very tasty, and local, pizza pie.
TONY'S PASTA SHOP AND TRATTORIA
212 High Street ' 423-265-5033
Taking local to another level, the herbs used in the kitchen at Tony's Pasta Shop are supplied by the Bluff View's own farm. The onsite plot produces some 1,500 pounds of basil each year, as well as tomatoes, onions, rosemary, tarragon, mint, chives, bell peppers, grape vines and even honey from the garden's hive.
12 West 13th Street ' 423-475-5350
Featuring meats that are either all-natural, organic, grass fed or free-range, you can stack your burger with locally made products such as Sequatchie Cove Cumberland Cheese, Sweetwater Valley Farm Fiesta cheese or Benton's bacon. Sandwich it between a Niedlov's Breadworks bun for a local favorite.
34 Frazier Ave ' 423-475-6175
Owner Susan Paden makes every effort to build a better dog through nearby ingredients. Much of the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers found on her franks come from Good Dog's garden, and the recent addition of Sequatchie Cove pork allows her to serve local bratwurst, Italian sausage and breakfast sausage. This summer look for the Caprese dog, which features cream cheese, house-made pesto and tomatoes from the garden