The Stalwart Sellers

 

The rain blew, the temperature dropped, and the people kept coming.

Armed with umbrellas on an early October morning, several groups of shoppers ducked in and out of the tents tethered to the East State Street parking lot, shielding produce from gusts of slanted rain. The Silver Bridge stall, stationed near the back of the lot, enticed nearly every market-goer with its samples of steaming-hot coffee.

The Athens Farmers Market, a year-round vegetable bazaar in Athens, Ohio, materializes every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. Extra selling times – Wednesday mornings and Thursday evenings – are added during peak harvest months (April–December).

Each of the 50 tents showcase locally grown produce from farmers throughout southeastern Ohio – even in the most inclement weather.

“We were here on a Thursday evening, and it poured down rain,” Larry Cowdery, a market vendor from Long Bottom, Ohio, recalled on one of the market’s more tolerant days. “The sun was shining when we set up, and then it just poured.”

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Farmers Market-goers brave rain and low temperatures for farm fresh produce.

Cowdery spread his thick hands 2 feet apart, mimicking the depth of water that surrounded his tent during a summertime thunderstorm. “And we had to wait for it to quit,” he said with a chuckle at the memory. “The customers are sitting in their cars, waiting for it to stop, too, and we’re just standing under our tents, holding on so nothing blows away, trying to stay somewhat dry.”

He’s not the only seller who braves the rain. When asked if the damp weather keeps her from the market, Star Hamilton of Shade River Organic practically scoffed. “The rain deters you guys!” Hamilton said, wiping drops from her glasses. “We come because the food’s still out there growing. We can’t say we’ll just hold on until next week. You pick it, you pack it, you bring it to market, and you just hope.”

Many of the farmers and local food entrepreneurs have been selling at the market, in existence since 1972, for over 20 years. On mornings of sunshine, a couple hundred customers eagerly swarm the stands, sampling kettle corn and freshly made jams. On mornings of clouds and rain, not even a third of those same customers return – though most of the vendors still show up.

“People need to remember, if they want us here in the nice weather, they gotta come and buy from us in the crappy weather,” Hamilton said from under the shelter of her tent. “You gotta support us, or we won’t be able to do this anymore.”

Lily Hamilton, Star’s slim, twentysomething daughter, has been selling alongside her family at the market for the last few years. One of Lily’s more unfortunate experiences selling at the market came just before Thanksgiving last year.

“It was like 20 degrees outside,” Lily said. “It was so windy, and I forgot my gloves that day. I kept going and sitting in the truck for a while – it wasn’t snowing or anything, just windy. That was the worst day ever.”

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A selection of vegetables sold at the Athens Farmers Market.

Cowdery, clad in a red-checkered flannel and a backwards baseball cap, is a fifth-generation farmer who sells at the market on a regular basis.

“I bring all different types of vegetables, whatever’s in season,” Cowdery said, scratching his salt-and-pepper stubble as he surveyed a table of his wares. “Different types of squash, eggplant, pepper plants, tomatoes – all kinds, really.”

His family’s farm, Cowdery Farms, is located roughly 30 miles from Athens in Meigs County – one heck-of-a drive to then be sidelined by storms.

“We get ready the day before,” Cowdery said. “We’ve got stuff to sell – and perishable stuff only keeps for so long – so we harvest, and we plan on selling regardless of the weather.”

Dave Fisher, a seller of bright red raspberry jam, says he’s only missed a handful of days over the past three seasons of coming to the market due to weather.

“If I have fresh raspberries, I’m coming because they don’t keep,” Fisher said. “This market has very dedicated customers – they come no matter what. So I try to come no matter what, because they’re always looking for us.”

But it’s not just rain the farmers struggle against – it’s the wind, too.

“We now have to bring blocks to tie [the tents] down,” Fisher said, pointing to the concrete blocks anchoring his Fisher Farms tent to the lot. “I guess there was a thunderstorm that came and several tents got knocked over. Now, they’re very strict about the blocks and the insurance. Every vendor that has a tent has to have insurance, because of the wind.”

A pastime for many Athens residents, the farmers market has become, for some, a ritual worth even the wintry weather.

“One of my favorite things about Athens is this market,” Lara Süer said, cradling a soggy bag of lettuce under one of the tent flaps.

Süer, a 10th-grade student at Athens High School, comes with her mother Ayse almost every week, regardless of the outside temperature. “I like coming with my mom because it’s a nice outing together,” Süer said. “We try not to miss one.”

Though the market may not be as popular in poor weather conditions, the community’s demand for fresh food is what keeps the market going.

“One day we were here, it was raining sideways and 45 degrees,” Fisher said. “And the people came out – it’s amazing.”