On a brisk spring morning at the Madison County Farmers and Artisans Market, Liza Myers of Leaning Willow Farms stands at her booth, where her farm-fresh eggs, salad greens and starts are neatly displayed. Her kale plants have almost sold out. "We're going to be offering lots of vegetable starts this year because we want to help our neighbors grow their own food," she says. "Everyone can grow their own vegetables. Lettuce and other starts can be grown in containers, even if you don't have land."
Myers and Leaning Willow Farms co-owner Matt Hess sell their wares at farmers markets like this one in scenic Madison County, because it gives them a chance to meet their neighbors and interact with their community. "People would buy from us one week, and come back to tell us they loved it the next," says Hess. "A customer last year said my lettuce tasted just like his granny's, so I brought that kind of lettuce for him every week, and I'm growing it again this year."
Located just outside of Marshall, Leaning Willow is on the site of an old farm, which Matt and Liza have worked to restore. Their land, worked using natural methods, is certified Appalachian Grown, a designation offered by ASAP that identifies healthy family farms in WNC and the southern Appalachian region.
In the spring, the Leaning Willow greenhouse is filled with plants and seedlings, including the many heirloom varieties that Hess and Myers raise. Some of the vegetables they most look forward to are flashy trout back and Cherokee red crisp lettuces, as well as their sweet-pea black-currant tomatoes, which grow long and trailing so that they wander over the sides of their hanging baskets.
Hess and Myers also breed Olde English Southdown Babydoll sheep, a heritage breed. These sheep, half the size of most, have docile temperaments and make great pets. Matt suggests keeping the Babydolls to trim the grass in your yard.
Their son, Gus, loves these wildly cute sheep, of course — what child wouldn't? More surprising is his unabashed passion for vegetables and other growing things. One of the primary reasons Hess and Myers wanted to farm, they say, was to give Gus the experience of raising food.
Myers grew up in a city, but, intrigued by the hydrangea and plum tree growing in her grandfather's tiny yard (smaller than the greenhouse she has now), she started her own garden. When she was just eight years old, she entered a prize-winning tomato in the state fair. Matt's family has "always raised and put away food," and the elephant garlic and Egyptian walking onions growing at Leaning Willow today are from his grandfather's garden.
Come to a farmers market booth like Leaning Willow's, and you'll see the true products of a family farm, and evidence of the next generation of farmers: greens Gus harvested and sunflowers he grew himself.
What's blooming at the market
Whether you're looking for vegetable starts or ornamentals, right now plants are especially abundant at farmers tailgate markets all around the region.
As the season progresses, more fruit and vegetable selections become available. In April and early May, cool-weather crops such as greens, lettuces, radishes, onions and broccoli dominate produce vendors' tables. Asparagus may be the most popular buy at farmers tailgate markets this time of year. Arrive early for selections including purple asparagus at the Asheville City Market. Rhubarb is sought-after too, but so far only available at some markets, including the Yancey County Farmers Market.
Many farmers markets offer preserves ranging from sour pickles to sweet sorghum syrup and a variety of baked goods. Complete your grocery shopping at farmers markets with natural eggs, artisan cheeses, humanely raised meats and fish brought from the coast or farmed by locals. Look for gifts, home wares and body-care products from mountain artisans, too.
[Rose McClarney works for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (www.asapconnections.org), a non-profit organization that works to keep farmers farming and reconnect people with their food. Contact her at email@example.com.]