This is one in a series of posts highlighting the four winners of our summer long America’s Favorite Farmers Markets™ contest.
Last winter saw some of the most severe weather in the Washington, D.C. area. A handful of major blizzards literally brought the city and surrounding communities to a halt. Despite the impeding snow storms, the famers market in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb of D.C., still drew vendors and customers. But even the popular Saturday market was not immune from the treacherous weather; for the first time in its 25-year history, the market shut down for one weekend.
The Falls Church Farmers Market has a large, faithful base of consumers, drawing about 1,000 visitors during peak season. Many have attended the market for 20 or more years, looking for the best produce, meats and goods from area vendors. It’s a place to meet up with your neighbors, chat about food and get hands-on lessons from local growers.
“I think we have a great client base that is very, very supportive of the market and love coming up to the Falls Church Market and bumping into their neighbors,” says Howard Herman, the general manager of community service for the city. “I look at the market as kind of the fabric of the city, and I think the customers also view it that way. To me, it’s a critically important aspect of the city, and something the citizens feel good about.”
In its early days, the Falls Church Farmers Market struggled with attracting both producers and customers. But it wasn’t just luck that brought prosperity to the market. Herman explains that the market was heavily advertised after its early years, a time that saw only about six producers. The market was originally seasonal, but for the past four years the market shifted to a year-long event, drawing in about 45 vendors during peak season and dropping to 30 in the winter.
Winning a top award in America’s Favorite Farmers Market was a tremendous honor, Herman says. “I love the market. It’s one of those things that is hard to articulate what it means to the city and what it means to me.”
In addition to being general manager of the market, Herman is also a vendor. He sells honey and has always had an interest in farming. He considers the market to be his baby. “I think it’s a tremendous honor,” he says about winning the award. “From my perspective, on behalf of the city, I loved getting the email and was thrilled about it.”
The market saw a shift about 10 years ago when it became more diverse. Herman says the goal of diversifying the market was to make sure vendors were not just selling peaches, apples, tomatoes and corn. Now you can find baked goods, cheese, meats like sausage, beef and poultry, and other vendors there were not originally available at the market.
“It’s a result primarily of us seeking out a more diverse product line,” Herman says. “But I also think it’s recognition that there are farmers who produce or grow things other than fruits and vegetables. There are quite a few beef, pork and lamb producers out there that we weren’t even touching at the market.
The market allows producers from within a 125 mile radius of the city of Falls Church. That means the market is filled with growers and producers from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia.
“The more diverse we’ve gotten, the more popular the market has been,” Herman says. “You can do one-stop shopping here. You can get everything here—produce wise—that you can get at any super market, and the fact it’s locally grown produce is a huge plus.”
These local farmers markets help keep family-owned farms in business, Herman believes. While the locally grown food movement may have seemed like a fad 25 years ago when the market first opened, today it’s clear people yearn for food grown by people they can interact with. Farmers can sell directly to the consumer and not have to go directly through a wholesaler.
“I frequently hear from farmers that the local farmers markets have allowed them to stay in business,” Herman says. “I have one (farmer) up in Pennsylvania who says his family would probably be out of the farming industry if it weren’t for the local markets.”
For consumers, the market gives them a chance to talk directly with the farmers who produce their food. You can walk right up to a vendor and ask them about their okra or heirloom tomatoes, and see if they have any recipe ideas.