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Southern Stories
Jan 27/17

The Dirt on the Growing Little Rock Farmers Market Trend Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments

Lodged in our weird, collective subconscious of nostalgic images and archetypes of yore is the farmers market. Whether or not we eat at McDonald’s and prefer Cheez-Its to fresh vegetables, we all have soft feelings for the farmers market, with its quaint booths and dirty-handed folk of the earth. Even before small-scale farming experienced its resurrection in central Arkansas, we had the Little Rock Farmers Market, and we all fantasize about the simple life of skipping down to the market on Saturday mornings, wicker basket in hand, buying leafy things and French bread and laughing with our old farmer friends.

“Yes, I’m going to cook this in pig fat and invite all my friends over to my rooftop garden where there will be strawberry jam. Huzzah!” we say.
Maybe that’s why we’re seeing record numbers for farmers markets in Little Rock. I mean, I doubt this city has ever had this many independent markets, though we have always had the roadside farm stands hocking melons off the tailgate. Nay, the modern market is a new beast — they are branded, they have billboards and cool logos, they are more akin to community events than a foraging service. And we’ve seen two open this year and three open last year. Do the math. We’re on a farmers market binge.

The truth is we have more markets than we really have farmers. Try attending every market in a week’s span, and you’ll see a lot of familiar faces. Some growers defy physics and have stands at more than one market at the same time. How duplicitous. But the modern Little Rock farmers market is more diverse — in addition to farmers, you will see bakeries, and restauranteurs, nurseries, food trucks, dog-treat crafters, prophets. The point may be elusive but seems to involve eating good food, drinking coffee, wondering around and casually buying $25 worth of goods over the span of an hour. Regardless of the philosophy, farmers markets are cool right now and arguably our most meaningful form of community experience, with each market developing its own unique personality.

The Little Rock Farmers Market
7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays. The River Market
Our dear Godfather market, the LRFM was doing this before it was cool, which kind of shows. LRFM is staged at the River Market, right below the perch of the colossal Little Rock lettering, like a huge stamp of city approval, and it works as a tourist destination as much as a farmers market. You’re as likely to buy crafts and candles as produce, and the market is made for a much wider audience, with triple the number of vendors than its more humble sisters, though not all vendors are strictly local. Alongside fresh Arkansas tomatoes, you might see bananas or squash about three months out of season. But, like the Godfather, no other market is allowed to forget its debt to LRFM as the root of all. As long as the Clinton strip continues to be a thriving urban hotspot, the Little Rock Farmers Market will continue to enjoy swift and happy business.

Argenta Farmers Market (CAFM)
7 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Argenta District of North Little Rock
That CAFM thing stands for Certified Arkansas Farmers Market, though most folks just refer to it as Argenta. I honestly don’t know if CAFM is its official moniker anymore; on Facebook, it’s the Argenta Farmers Market. The history is a little complex, but Argenta has the hard currency and street credit of pushing the farmers market bar higher several years ago. At the time, the Little Rock Farmers Market was the only fish in the pond, and things were come-all, sell-whatever, meaning the produce could be local but might also be wholesale and from Florida. It’s a complex conversation, but suffice it to say that authentic local farmers can be easily undercut by wholesalers, whose produce is usually cheaper and more uniform. Thus was born CAFM, a market designed through cooperation and regulation to guarantee all things local. The picture you’re getting is the first authentic all-local market, popping up in conjunction with the Argenta District’s up-and-coming status around 2008, and Argenta is going strong into its sixth year. In addition to a healthy number of guaranteed local producers (probably the most to be found at any market besides the LRFM), live music and special events are par for the course, thanks to the market’s connection with the Argenta Market. Hog roasts, foodie fests, etc. Brunch and coffee + vendors selling produce, meats, honey, eggs, cheese, canned goods + this cool unused-gravel-lot-with-trucks-and-tents on a Saturday feel. This certified Arkansas farmers market is still paving the way for an authentic marketplace for our small, local farmers, almost all of whom set up their first stand at Argenta. You might call the Argenta’s Farmers Market the Godmother.

The Hillcrest Farmers Market
7 a.m. to noon, Saturdays. Pulaski Heights Baptist Church
Last year, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church founded the Hillcrest Farmers Market as an act of community service, in a neighborhood on the other end of up-and-coming. Hillcrest has long been the neighborhood of weird, crooked houses and people in sandals walking their dogs at 2 a.m. The choir’s been in place and ready for a long time, and PHBC decided to preach. Thus, when the Hillcrest Farmers Market popped its tents on the sidewalk and erected its fetching logo, the response was a big, “Thank You More Please.”
It’s heartening to see a little market do so well so quickly. Perhaps the stars aligned, because a core of dedicated and popular vendors were on hand and made this market. North Pulaski Farm and Rattle’s Garden brought their organic produce, along with the ever-popular Little Rock Urban Farm. Southern Gourmasian and a few other food trucks perched on the curb. Then Mylo Coffee Co. decided to set up shop, and everyone found out that enticing civilians with, like, really good croissants and cake is a foolproof way to sell vegetables.
The Hillcrest Farmers Market is a minimalist take on markets. There’s no live music or festivals, but this market is less a destination for tourists, more a neighborhood service and good-feeling-generator. Most market-goers come on foot from their nearby homes, with dogs or strollers or sweat drops in tow. It’s quiet and underwhelming in its strength, the kind of which is enduring enough to outlast the fad lining our current market craze. This past winter, while the other open-air markets slipped into hibernation, the Hillcrest market stayed open and went year-round. The doubters scoffed. “Harrumph. A farmers’ market in winter? Scuttlebutt!” They may have forgotten our average winter temperature of 50 degrees or the excruciating drought last summer. Our farmers remained and became more productive, and customers kept coming in the (relative) cold. A few (myself included) even hiked through the Christmas snow to buy some semi-frozen kale. Yes indeed, if you live around Hillcrest, you are stuck with this market. Lucky you.

(photo courtesy of Bernice Garden)

The Bernice Farmers Market
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. The Bernice Sculpture Garden
When I caught word that another farmers market was in the works in SoMa last summer, I said, “Really? Another one?” I soon ate those words, along with the fresh carrots I picked up at the new Bernice Farmers Market. It may well be that nothing food-related is permitted to suffer in the South Main neighborhood. The humble titans of food in that tiny block love to conspire on new ways to propagate deliciousness, and they certainly jumped aboard when the Bernice Farmers Market opened. The Root Cafe opened for Sunday brunch, and the Green Corner Store’s soda fountain did the same, along with Boulevard on Main. The Sunday market (cleverly scheduled by community feedback via an online survey prior to its opening, in order to catch that downtown church going/lazy-and-hungry crowd) soon became brunch, ice cream, and a market.
The market itself is in accordance with the new tradition of keeping the vendors and vegetables local, but it’s less formal and regulated than CAFM. Here, backyard gardeners with too much squash are invited alongside the professional farmers, and you see some fresh faces there, like Kent Walker’s Artisan Cheese, Naturally FAB, Bottle Tree Gardens, and those people who sell natural dog treats. There are a number of urban gardeners like Bussey-Scott Urban Garden and Dunbar Community Garden there regularly, and don’t forget Mylo’s Coffee Company (people never really do). More recently, chefs such as Travis McConnell of Butcher & Public and Alexis Jones of Natchez Restaurant have come out to serve Southern street food. In addition, this market is a frequent host to festivals and celebrations: poultry swaps, strawberry festivals, holiday markets. In that sense, the Bernice farmers market is very much an extension of the Bernice Garden itself, a layered space for community engagement and revival.

The Westover Hills Presbyterian Church Farmers Market
4 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, adjacent to Westover Hills Presbyterian Church.
It’s rare to consider much in the consumer’s perspective on what farming is actually like, but one can imagine the challenge of only having markets during the weekend. It’s not like vegetables hold off on ripening until Friday every week. A midweek market helps spread things out, and in its third season Westover Hills hits that midweek opportunity for growers as well as the post-work crowd just off the Heights’ business strip.
You’ll find a healthy number of vendors there, mostly on the produce side of food, along with baked goods and live plants. Like the Hillcrest Market, Westover is an extension of a church, and vendors are quick to spout the advantages of partnering with a church, the topmost of which being a readymade volunteer staff to help manage the market. Joe consumer can easily miss how much goes into regular market maintenance; the ship’s crew worth of hands on deck helps run things smoothly, and a church provides that easily.
Westover Hills is also helping to localize Arkansas products in a vibrant neighborhood not associated with downtown Little Rock. Before I ever introduced my mother to many of my favorite farmers, she met them at Westover Hills, after work, and while the Heights is no downtown business district, there are obviously plenty of people willing to support this midweek market and forego the Saturday trip downtown.

Farmers Market at the Village
4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday. In the Whole Foods parking lot
Disclaimer: This market is not technically a Whole Foods farmers market. It’s just in the Whole Foods parking lot, and there’s a sign in front of Whole Foods promoting it. But do not be a victim of associative thinking; the two are distinct. The Village refers to the shopping district of which Whole Foods is a part, and the name is sort of fitting, isn’t it? Like an ultra quaint farmers’ market in some village o’er yonder mountain, where no one is attractive but everyone is happy.
The Farmers Market at the Village is brand new, just having witnessed its first day on Earth this past week. Its significance lies in the location: West Little Rock, a virtual food dessert when it comes to local. No other farmers market has successfully made it out this far West and survived; we shall see what fate deals this fledgling endeavor. My first visit was short, as there were only a few vendors, and I couldn’t really find it since I shot straight for Whole Foods. The tents are on the southwest side of the parking lot, taking up the parking spaces there, trucks and vans nestled behind the stands. As I chatted with the vendors, a few curious passersby approached, but no one was buying. This isn’t really troubling. New farmers markets take time to establish themselves, and sales are always slow at first. It takes consistency and some dedication on the vendors’ part to really pick up momentum.
The Village Market represents another organization working to network Arkansas producers under a brand. Strength in numbers is part of the idea, meaning that our small farmers need to join forces to create a stronger local food system. It’s also meant to help ensure that the customer is receiving a high quality, all-local product when he or she comes to the market. While not all attending vendors were certified organic, most were, and, according to Josh Hardin of Laughing Stock Farms (one of the forces behind this market’s inception), there will be a focus on organic. After all, Whole Foods is right across the parking lot. Though unaffiliated, Whole Foods clearly brings a specific crowd to the parking lot: people are who sympathetic to local and healthy. With that kind of ready-made traffic, chances are this market will make it.

The Farmers Market at Shoppes on Woodlawn
4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays. Shoppes on Woodlawn’s lawn
Ladies and gentlemen, we are steadily approaching a farmers market for every day of the week. Monday and Friday, your days are numbered, just like the number of farmers who can actually attend all these markets. This is the second of 2013’s new markets on the scene. Luckily, Shoppes on Woodlawn has some strong elements on its side: its proximity to Kroger and Hillcrest’s shops and restaurants, First Thursdays, the rare but beloved Freckle Face Farm, Little Rock Urban Farming (located, like, 10 blocks away from Woodlawn), and Mylo’s Coffee Co (like, eight blocks away). Chances are, the same crowd who turns up for Hillcrest’s Farmers
Market will stroll down for this one.
Unfortunately, this spring picked up the quirky habit of only having bad weather on Thursdays. So Shoppes on Woodlawn has had a slow start, but with most of its central vendors being so close to the area, the starting investment isn’t necessarily huge. And a little rain can only do so much to deter the determined. I arrived just before 4:30 last week, and Little Rock Urban Farm had already sold all its strawberries to Shoppes on Woodland patrons. Like the Village’s market, this market is also meant to be under a brand of certified Arkansas producers. For the season, expect local, organic produce, as well as pasture-raised meats and Mylo’s delicious baked goods, and meandering tipsy waifs (thanks to First Thursdays).

The Little Rock Local Food Club
10 a.m. to noon Saturdays and 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays. Christ Episcopal Church
The open-air market is the generic approach to selling local food, but there are alternatives. So, every Saturday and Monday, you’ll find people arriving at Christ Episcopal Church, picking up individual order sheets, filling their bags with local produce, meats, eggs, herbs, plants, cheese, and bread with the help of aproned volunteers, and paying before leaving. This is the Little Rock Local Food Club, an online farmers market geared more toward convenience and ease than community pageantry.
The Local Food Club began seven years ago as an e-mail operation, in which people would e-mail orders for Armstead Mountain Farms (an organic farm in the Ozarks) produce every week. A few core volunteers would send those orders along to the farm and help bag, label, and distribute it once Armstead delivered. The whole operation was built around the desire to help Armstead Mountain Farm still gets its high-quality, organic produce to Little Rock, while saving the farmers time and energy. Like the internet and modernity, convenience counted.
Now the Little Rock Local Food Club is a full-fledged online operation of the Arkansas Local Food Network, with more than 30 producers uploading their products every week and customers placing orders through their accounts. Every week, customers fill their online shopping carts with everything from Arkansas Fresh artisan bread to Crimmins Family Farm’s organic lettuces, Falling Sky Farm’s pasture-raised chicken, ABC Nature Greenhouse’s heirloom seedlings, and Kent Walker’s artisan cheese. Vendors receive their orders via automated e-mail and deliver their bagged and labeled products for Saturday and Monday pickup. Customers then come to the church, collect their orders, pay and leave. There is time for talk, and potlucks and community events pop up occasionally, but most customers are in and out in under 10 minutes.
The Local Food Club is an interesting solution to the problem of farmers having only so many hours in the day to farm, market, and sell, as well as civilians’ time limits. Open-air markets can be time consuming, usually lasting over four hours and requiring long trips into town. The online market requires only a little extra work on the farmer’s part while providing more sales and allows its customer to buy their bulk of groceries locally and quickly. In its seventh year of operation, the Little Rock Local Food Club is going strong, with its fridges and freezers routinely packed to maximum capacity, a devoted and expanding group of locavores for customers, and a not terribly disgruntled core volunteer staff. As more open-air markets open, the Food Club helps make local food a little easier to get around town.

Sam Hedges was born in Little Rock and attended the University of the South. He is the Director of Operations for the Arkansas Local Food Network and works at the Little Rock Athletic Club. He collects food and then eats it.



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