Walker County Commissioner Mark Askew issued a call earlier this month to support local agriculture, pinning it to a warning that hard times could be right around the corner.
With the spring planting season coming up, he said it's important to get fired up to support the local farmers market.
"It looks like with the food shortages we could have and the supply chain shortages we already know we have, we definitely wanna keep our locally grown produce here," Askew said at the March 10 commission meeting.
In addition to seeing support for local agriculture as an important hedge against fragile supply chains, the on-the-ground organizers of farmers markets of Northwest Georgia also see them as a celebration of community and local ingenuity.
Every community should have its own market, said Mackenzie Boisvert, who manages the Walker County Farmers Market and also runs the Little Farmstead That Could in LaFayette.
"To start a farmers market starts with pure love of supporting farms and the local scene," she said in an email. "No one gets into starting a market thinking they will gain money running one. It's more like you are having an avenue to help small local vendors support their dreams."
During the season, there are about 25 vendors at the Walker County Agricultural Center on North Highway 27 in Rock Springs, and an average of about 1,000 people show up to shop. Walker County allows vendors to use the location for free, but organizers are seeking other financial support from the community because of all the time and energy it takes to put on such a big event twice a week.
The market's season begins May 4 and runs through September. The market is open 3-6 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.
Several farmers markets, including the one in Walker County, participate in a program that allows people receiving federal food benefits to double those dollars when shopping at the market. Boisvert said it's a great way for people with low income to participate in the experience of farmers markets.
There are a lot of markets popping up around the area, Boisvert said, and she thinks it's important for them to coordinate because there are only so many farmers in the area. Some markets are more craft-related, but Boisvert said they're a producer-only market - a choice made to support and encourage local growers.
"You have to grow it, bake it or craft it with your own hands. And it's [created] within 50 square miles," she said. Organizers conduct site visits to double-check that rules are followed.
Making a living off the land isn't just about growing and selling vegetables, Boisvert said. On her farm, she hosts birthday parties for kids and farm classes, she said. Other farmers host weddings and farm-to-table dinners or rent space for photoshoots. Some farmers sell a share of the bounty they'll produce on the front end - a program called community-supported agriculture - to give shareowners buy-in and produce throughout the growing season.
Boisvert said she's seen more young people trying their hand at farming, and the market gives a free booth to any vendor under 18. The local farming movement is taking hold, she said, giving as an example a corn farmer who was in "big ag" for the past 15 years but recently switched to market gardening.
The biggest misunderstanding of farming is that you need a lot of land to grow on, she said. Boisvert said she grows on about 2 acres, while other farms operate on as little as half an acre. It's a crazy time for all sizes of growers because the cost of fertilizer has tripled and animal feed has doubled, but she said she thinks the work is very important.
"There's a huge need for farmers," Boisvert said. "Personally, for me, it's the most rewarding job ever. The population, the people, are starting to think different and actually worry about what's in their food now and want nutrient-rich food. Or the grocery shelves are empty. There's a huge need for farms, and any type of farm you can find an avenue to sell."
There are farmers markets in Chattanooga and in Georgia in Dalton, Ringgold and Flintstone, Boisvert said. Each market has a slightly different approach to the model, she said. Not every market has succeeded, and Boisvert said a Rome, Georgia, farmers market didn't return this year. In Ringgold, the local government helps support the market, but in Flintstone, Georgia, it's a labor of love.
Riley Cash, director of the Flintstone Market, said she started the monthly market because she wanted to see more community spirit in her hometown. The market has grown significantly since it started, she said, and now it has a whole team of people working to make it successful.
"We're about to have our fourth market, and it has grown every time, and we've had great feedback," Cash said. The market is every second Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 67 Sanford Lane, on the grounds of Cart and Seoul, a restaurant in the town of just more than 4,000 residents.
April 9 is the next market, and it will have a spring and Easter theme. Cash said each market features about 25 local vendors, farmers and creators from different sectors of the community.
"I think community is a big word. We're looking to partner and collaborate with the unseen backbone of the community to provide the products of produce and everything. Again, I feel like they were overlooked, so I want to shine a light on that," she said.
At first, organizers weren't sure how popular the market would be, but Cash said they were blown away by the amount of hidden talent nearby. The Flintstone Market is different than some other markets in that it operates year-round, Cash said.
The market is important for job opportunities, getting people out and about and helping people learn where their food comes from, she said. "We definitely have a bigger vision for community over corporations," Cash said, adding the market is a response to her growing up in a small town that didn't seem to have anything unique or different about it.
In Dade County, Georgia, Trenton has an informal market usually on Thursdays, county extension coordinator Sarah Dyer said in a phone interview. There's no market manager, but the market attracts up to 10 vendors selling vegetables and crafts.
A new market called Stable 41 is opening soon in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. It will run from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, Dyer said.
A vibrant farmers market is a big part of giving the people of Ringgold events to attend, build the community and promote the town, according to Brandy Johnson, sponsorship coordinator for the Rabbit Valley Farmers Market in Ringgold. She said the local government helps the market with advertising, but it also gets support from local businesses.
The funding the market raised has doubled from last year, Johnson said in a phone interview.
The market's season kicks off with a wine and art market on April 30, and the first farmers market is May 7. Rabbit Valley is also hosting several big evening events including celebrations of the summer solstice, Memorial Day and Ringgold's 175th birthday.
"We want to keep people in Ringgold," Johnson said. "Before, you had to go to downtown Chattanooga or somewhere else. There just wasn't the events and things to do in our own community. We also didn't have the local produce. The famers market and children's program all is a good way to support our local farmers and growers."
Johnson said organizers want to keep their farmers market local, and 80% of their vendors sell produce and the other 20% sell crafts. Activities and support for children is another focus of the market's events, she said, and that includes free vendor slots for young people and a token program that lets children buy special, kid-friendly items at the market. A total of 800 children signed up last year and organizers expect that number to increase this year.
"It's a great family atmosphere," Johnson said. "We're just trying to do more, to grow Ringgold and the community. We love Ringgold ... We love our town."