Before I made the trek to Forest Hill to see what all the commotion was about, I never would have imagined being able to write more than two paragraphs about the South of the James Farmers’ Market. I had a pretty underwhelming idea of what to expect: a few white tents with interesting goods being sold, a Mrs. Yoder’s doughnut truck, and a whole lot of people. Karen Atkinson, who works with this market through GrowRVA, captured the essence of what the South of the James Market is intended to be by describing it as a place where “people have the opportunity to connect directly with where and how their food is grown or prepared. They are exposed to creatives who love what they do. Families come each week to see friends and neighbors. Out of town guests have the the chance to experience Richmond in an unique setting.” This profound purpose only begins to show what I discovered to be a hub of culture and community.
The South of the James Market operates rain-or-shine on Saturday mornings to promote the unification of the Richmond community through a farm-to-table approach. Mrs. Atkinson described the ways in which this approach caters to the market’s mission in saying, “GrowRVA connects local farms, local food, and local arts with the RVA community. We build partnerships while promoting sustainability and healthy food options for all Richmonders. The market also provides small businesses to grow with limited overhead costs.” The emphasis of this mission lies in localizing the entire process of creating and selling a good to build a community and bring it together.
On any given Saturday, the South of the James Market will look entirely the same, yet entirely different than it did the week before. Your path will still be flanked by dozens of colorful tents and a variety of products, ranging from pottery to flowers to empanadas. The market will always be just the right level of bustling— never feeling crowded, but constantly appearing to have an ever-changing flow of people. You can pick out people that seem to be just like you and people that seemed to be just the opposite. Musicians will crop up amongst the tents, some playing four instruments at a time, others dressed in exotic clothing. The dogs scrambling between the legs of the crowd might even appear to be the same mixture of unconventional mutts. However, unlike a mall or grocery store, the market is perpetually changing. Beneath the consistent mapping and scheduling of vendors lies the evolving spirit of the market that keeps things different and interesting from week to week. You could arrive at the same time, visit the same tents, and eat the same foods every Saturday, but no two Saturdays would be alike. This change is a part of what makes the farmers’ market an experience beyond simply buying food or art.
When I finally went to the market myself, I was exposed to the personality of this experience within minutes of my arrival. Just as I began to peruse the sea of colorful vendors, a friendly woman named Heather Glissman caught my eye from behind the Grammy O’s Sticky Buns booth, smiled, and handed me a toothpick topped with a delicious sticky bun. Immediately, this lady began to explain how she had grown up eating her grandmother’s sticky buns and loved them so much that she has decided to share them with the world. The exchange was short and simple, but it was also the first piece of evidence of the genuine, loving personality characteristic of the South of the James Market. Glissman offered a perfect introduction to the welcoming community of artisans just waiting to share their own stories and products. Whether it be stories like Glissman’s or the delicious smells wafting from behind inviting booths, everything about this market draws you in.
There is something special in the farmers’ market atmosphere that might be too subtle to appreciate right away: the vendors are missing that somewhat pushy urgency most sales men and women use to pressure spectators into buying. Explorers of the South of the James Market will be delighted to discover that all the vendors want is to share what they made with the community. They are happy to spend time explaining their work and gratuitously handing out samples, but will show not a single flicker of disappointment when a customer walks away empty-handed. In a world where buying and selling drive almost every interaction, this farmers’ market acts as a haven within which the motivation behind each vendor is simply the desire to share.
These vendors contribute so much to the personality of the market in each of their stories. One such story that illustrates the diverse personality of the market can be found at the Anna’s Art booth. Anna Evdokimova is originally from Russia but moved to Richmond when VCU asked her husband to come work for them as a microbiologist. Evdokimova has settled in nicely to the South of the James Market and mentioned, “I have been all over the place, but this place is one of my favorites.” But what is particularly intriguing about Evdokimova is that she had earned both a master’s and a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and nuclear physics, yet here she is at a farmers’ market in Richmond, Virginia, selling jewelry. When asked her how she had settled on this job, Evdokimova explained that “it just used to be my hobby and I turned into a full-time, self-employed artist— not in one day, but quite quick.” In a competitive world with narrow definitions of success, people like Evdokimova serve as a reminder that the only potential we need to fulfill is the potential that demands we pursue a passion.
At another booth sits a collection of small, woolen figurines and a beautiful array of handmade soaps. Pete Murphy told the story of how he ended up standing behind a table of handmade soap and woolen nativity figures. Mr. Murphy explained that when his daughter was faced with eczema and psoriasis, “[his] wife had to make something to help her.” Although the soap began as a family-level solution, it quickly grew to be in high demand around the community. While this venture was flourishing, Mr. Murphy’s wife had generated a popular response to the woolen figures she was selling. Like the soap, these figures had humble begins, but, as Mr. Murphy explained, “they got so popular, people started ordering them.” Hand-crafted out of the family’s sheep’s wool, the intricate models became a part of the Murphy business 15 years ago. Although this background may be more local than that of Evdokimova, it makes up the essence of what the farmers’ market truly is. Much of the reason that so many people are willing to drive out to Forest Hill Park and buy a more expensive loaf of bread or bar of soap is for families like the Murphys. These families that make up the South of the James Market are a part of the Richmond community, so other members of that community feel a sense of responsibility to make their businesses possible.
No story about the South of the James Market would be complete without touching on Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen. As one of the most talked-about food trucks at Collegiate, Mrs. Yoder’s has become widely popular for their homemade buttermilk doughnuts. Judy Yoder began the business in the spring of 2011 with her husband and five children. The family had just moved to Dinwiddie County from Madison, Virginia, and they were looking for a way to earn their living. So they decided to try making sourdough donuts.
Mrs. Yoder elaborated on what has made this process so successful, saying, “I have enjoyed this business a lot, since we can work together as a family.” She also described the way in which her doughnuts came about, explaining, “I did not want to use a mix, so I came up with a recipe from scratch, that I hoped people would enjoy.” The public has definitely enjoyed the recipe, allowing the business to grow from its beginnings at the 17th Street Farmers’ Market, where it sold about 150 doughnuts each Saturday, to the booming success it is today.
Mrs. Yoder described the experience of joining the market at Forest Hill Park in July of 2011, saying, “we were very grateful when the opportunity to vend at South of the James farmers’ market opened up.” She also graciously cited the welcoming nature of the market in explaining that “the overwhelming support of our customers is what keeps us going!” You might be wondering what makes these doughnuts so amazing, to which Mrs. Yoder would respond with her thoughtful, old-fashioned process. When asked about this process, Mrs. Yoder responded, “I believe our donut is different because it is truly made from scratch, with the glaze recipe being from my mother-in-law! Lots of cream and butter!”
One of the many positive byproducts of these doughnuts has been Collegiate’s general gravitation towards the South of the James Market on Saturday mornings. Mrs. Yoder’s doughnuts, along with other farmers’ market favorites— like a bowl from Goatocado or a bagel with the works— have shown students and faculty an entirely different side to their Richmond community. Addie Burke (‘16) described this contact with the market and community, saying, “I like the things they sell and you are exposed to a diverse group of people that you wouldn’t normally see in the Collegiate bubble.” Students like Addie appreciate the South of the James farmers’ market because it stands for the expansion of our idea of community. Claire Tate (‘16) also supports the farmers’ market’s mission because “food should be social, local, and communal. The farmers’ market encapsulates that.”
Collegiate teachers capitalize on the experience as well by supporting this mission or by venturing to the market with their families. Upper School English teacher Vlastik Svab explains these ventures: “My four-year-old son (Collegiate class of 2029) and I have been going almost every Saturday since he was born, since he’s an early riser. Mrs. Yoder’s (and Busch Gardens) has taught him to wait in line. We love the musicians especially. It’s a great place to see friends, get fresh produce, and then go play in the park.” Upper School Senior Seminar teacher Rhiannon Boyd, an ongoing supporter of healthy, sustainable food and agriculture, also identifies what the farmers’ market means to Collegiate and to the Richmond community as a whole. She described her take on the subject by saying, “I think it’s important that farmers markets represent a place where people come together to support the making of a community. The fact that it’s grown in Richmond and now it’s being supported by Collegiate is a sign that we crave connectivity, and that’s something that matters in Richmond, and I think it’s starting to matter more.”
In a world that craves this connectivity, the farmers’ market gives communities a way to come together that is centered around food. People have been gathering to buy and sell food since the beginning of civilization, making the farmers’ market the most enduring kind of social network. Even though modern social networks have begun edging markets out of the social sphere, places like the South of the James Market serve as reminders of the importance of human connections. So when you pay a little extra for a painting or a pie, think about what you are really paying for. Whether it is to hear the stories from people like Anna Evdokimova or to try a doughnut from the famous Mrs. Yoder, you will not be disappointed by what you find.
Featured Image Credit: Helen Roddey