The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Culture blooms at Farmers Market

With varied and colorful stalls all around, a booth full of fresh flowers stands next to a woodcarver's display of handmade clocks and ornaments. Past a stand of Hungarian baked goods sits an organic produce seller. But this scene is not an exotic marketplace in a foreign country -- it's the Charlottesville Farmers Market.

Every Saturday from mid-April until the end of October, from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., local venders gather in the parking lot on Water and South Streets, near the Downtown Mall, to sell their homemade, homegrown, original and sometimes unusual wares.

At its height, sometime in midseason, about 65 venders have booths at the market.

Steve Cunningham, who operates a booth selling beaded jewelry, described the market as an "interesting, eclectic mix of people." He knows what he's talking about; His involvement in the Farmers Market is long standing and part of an extensive family tradition.

On a Saturday earlier this month, Gary Grunau of Landovel Farms sold sorbet, goat cheese and gelato made with goat cheese instead of cream. Everything was organic and the flavors, ranging from strawberry basil sorbet to key lime gelato, tasted fresh and not at all of goat cheese.

Goods on sale included booth after booth of fruits and vegetables.

Francisco Medina, a local grower, has sold freshly grown produce at the market for the past six years.

"I go to four or five different markets a week," Medina explained, then quickly assured, "but this [the Charlottesville market] has the best sales."

Because the summer was marked by drought in Virginia, Medina said there was "less production of vegetables and the quality of the vegetables was damaged, too."

He added that because most of his customers are regulars and the quality of produce available in grocery stores has suffered this summer as well, his sales were not affected.

The buyers do seem enthusiastic about the market. Resident Kirsten Griffiths said she knows the products at the Farmers Market are natural and not genetically engineered.

"You know it's actually a vegetable product" being sold, Griffiths said. She explained that being responsible for a child has made her start worrying about the kinds of food she buys.

The market excited her so much that she was considering selling her own homegrown herbs.

"I'm surprised no one does it already," she added.

Another market browser, Dave van der Kloot, said he and his wife come to the market every Saturday. All their produce at home comes from the Farmers Market.

"Things here taste better and are probably fresher," Kloot said.

But all is not well in the Farmers Market. Recently, problems have emerged with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). The issue at heart concerns scales that measure and weigh produce.

State inspectors had visited the market that morning. Looking around, there were several scales with hard-to-miss red tags stating that they had failed to pass inspection.

Virginia law requires the use of commercial grade, class three scales which typically cost $200 each, said Cecile Gorhan, a University graduate who has sold plants at the market for the past 17 years.

Gorhan said exact scales and exact numbers do not necessarily belong in a farmers market. In her experience, people, venders and customers included, like to round off and not deal with odd numbers.

State law contends that for the buyer to get a fair deal, high quality scales are necessary. When rounding off occurs, the buyer either pays too much or too little. Gorhan added that the customers she had seen did not have problems with the system.

Judy Johnson has worked as the Charlottesville Farmers Market Manager since 1988. She said she fears what will happen to the market should the "scale police," as she calls them, succeed in enforcing Virginia scale regulations.

"We're direct sellers," she explained. "Use of [regulation] scales would alter the nature of the market."

Johnson pointed out that one-third of the booths at the market are unreserved, meaning a vender could show up any Saturday and sell, without the commitment of ever selling again. Children and senior citizens, who often make up the one-time sellers, would not be able to participate in the market unless they possessed an acceptable scale. The one-third of the venders who add to the variety of the market would disappear, she said.

According to Johnson, some farmers already choose not to grow certain products because they cannot afford to invest in a scale. One grower told Johnson that it would take five years worth of profits from his pea sales to pay for a regulation scale.

"Diversity is a big issue," Johnson said. "We're not a Kroger's. We are what we are, out here in the fresh air every Saturday. You're buying directly from the person who grew, or made, or baked the goods."

Instituting the regulations would decrease the diversity, she said.

The market venders have hopes that the Commission to Study Farmers Markets, created in this year's legislation, will help the situation.

Del. Mitch Van Yahres (D-Charlottesville), incidentally one of the founders of the Charlottesville Farmers Market in 1973, has a seat on the committee.

For the main point, as Sarah Henley of Henley's Orchard remarked from behind crates of her homegrown apples and peaches, is that "it's a family community affair. People come and chat. They spend a Saturday morning"