London to Berea: a fall farmers market story

Leaving my London KY hotel while it’s still dark, I head north to Berea. As always, I’m gonna arrive too early even for the farmers market and for that reason (but also to soak up the local) I choose the state highway over the interstate, or as author William Least Heat Moon named these old roads, the blue highways. This road runs almost perpendicular to or crossing I-75 for most of the trip, at times less than a few hundred feet separate them. When it does come that close to the big booming noise of traffic just to the left, I look at the houses and businesses that have an interstate behind them and this road in front and wonder how those living there felt to be spared from the bulldozers and if “spared” is how they felt and or still feel.. 

Route 25 has existed since 1926 between Georgia and Michigan – well really now just to Covington KY just across the bridge from OH since I-75 eliminated all traces of it in Ohio and Michigan. It was once known as the Dixie Highway, which was the first road to connect the Midwest to the South starting in 1914. 

At first, I am momentarily blinded by cars (trucks mostly) heading the other way, and can see little that makes this drive worthwhile. But as the light starts to peek over the horizon, the shape of the surrounding area can be seen. Hills with sunlight highlighting the reds, oranges and green colors with scattered homes (almost all painted white), old barns (almost never painted but left to weather in browns and greys), churches (mostly red brick), and work buildings (almost all with dozens of mechanical items crowding them) placed throughout. In each coven of buildings, the oldest are being allowed to melt back into the soil rather than tearing them down, the next oldest leaning leeward but still probably functional, and the newest most often designed in one story ranch style or mobile home. The main road is newly paved (thanks Big Govt) and I pass hilly gravel roads on either side with names like Old Crab Orchard Road, Old Hare Road, and can see tantalizing signs for John Swift’s Lost Silver Mine and Daniel Boone’s Historic Campground.

The road crosses the Daniel Boone National Forest which covers 21 counties of Kentucky with more than 708,000 acres in its glorious free space (once again thanks Big Govt). I pass through Livingston in Rockcastle County which is one of the park’s Trail Towns, where you can expect to find supplies and guides and food for traversing this rugged park.  

My trip is quiet and even peaceful as few vehicles are heading my way, and likely because of the next door interstate, no 18-wheeled trucks roar up behind or on side of me, menacing my little van.

Once in Berea, I spy the farmers market with its gorgeous new pavilion which is easily seen from all directions. From the road, I can see the vendors are still setting up and, knowing how anxious it can make them to have someone wandering around before they are ready, I instead take a right and head downtown, feeling confident I will find a good coffee somewhere near the famed college. More indications of Big Government doing its job appear on the way, including remodeled bridges, pedestrian crosswalks, smooth streets. I spy a jumble of signs that indicate culturally significant activities to the left, so I turn into an area named Artisans Village District which is a cluster of little cottages with retail signs designed to pull visitors looking for culture and craft. 

Not much going on there yet, but I find the open bagel and coffee house on the main road on its edge and get a honey wheat with maple bacon cream cheese with a good espresso and sit down in its modern, well-lit and friendly space.

 The line grows as soon as I sit and I note the number of families and working men and women already up and at it, all smoothly ordering a NY style bagel and artisanal coffee in Kentucky.

I finish my bagel and head to the market as it is opening time. I try to get to a market at its opening, and make some mental notes. Most of those things I look for do not have a right or a wrong way, they just reveal its culture. Things I look for:

Are all vendors set up by opening time?

Does the market indicate opening time with a bell or other manner?

Does the market have a welcome tent?

Are vendors offloading (walking their items in) or are their vehicles directly behind their table?

Is signage uniform or does it vary table by table?

How much diversity is there among the people vending? How about in its shoppers?

Do any vendors or the market indicate they can process government benefits like SNAP or FMNP?

Are there craft vendors?

Are there hot food vendors?

And so on. The list is extensive but with practice I have found I can note many things without being overt about it. Most of what I learn comes from the conversations with market manager and vendors and this day was no different.

I started by having a pleasant chat with its manager Olivia, who had a beautifully set up market welcome tent all ready to go, with SNAP signage very noticeable for those seeking to use their benefit dollars there. I assume that the tent with its Doubling Dollars information printed on it is likely given to the market by the entity that manages the program in Kentucky. 

The overall impression of the tent and of the market is one of extreme tidiness and with good sight lines.

I start at the right row of the 2 parallel rows, with a woman selling a variety of goods including persimmons, so I engage in a conversation about the varieties she sells. She knows a great deal about them and we talk about how shoppers now ask for them and how they are a food that is likely seeing a resurgence because of farmers markets (since so many varieties do not ship well to be able to sit in grocery coolers for weeks at a time.) When I ask, she (like most of their vendors) agreeably takes cards for payment for her goods. Having the ability to to swipe credit and debit cards has only recently moved to almost universal acceptance among vendors at many markets. Where it has happened all note the COVID era of risk mitigation as its cause when some markets were unable to use wooden tokens or were forced into drive through sales or unable to open at all. In all cases, farmers had to find an added method of processing payments and did. Now market managers happily tell shoppers to go through the vendors to swipe credit and debit even while SNAP is usually still handled at market level to everyone’s appreciation.

I see a friendly couple next to the persimmon seller who also have a variety of goods on their tables, including micro greens and beautiful tiny turnips. I would dearly love some micro green sprouts but being on the road I worry I wont be able to keep them safe in my coolers. I am regretfully about to turn away when I realize they also dehydrate and grind their microgreens into a powder, which I can store. I once again ask if I can use a credit card- they immediately answer yes but then cannot get a signal to process the card. The farmer grows anxious with the delay, although I am not as anxious. He mentions the signal is intermittent at this new pavilion and we discuss whether the city or the market can and should add a signal strengthener nearby. I finally root about my wallet to find that I have the exact dollar amount in there to cover my purchase; I offer it instead and he asks me if that’s “okay” to take my cash. “Of course” I answer and I silently turn that exchange over and over in my head because cash being used as the secondary payment  method is such a new development between customers and vendors at farmers markets.

I walk past other vendors beyond theirs but I keep my distance from the tables because I can see that they have vegetables I am unlikely to purchase. I do, however, catch their eye and say hello and, when I feel moved to do so, comment on their table or its products. I know that being ignored when selling in an open space can be uncomfortable and even painful and that a friendly hello can make a quiet sales hour seem slightly less scary.

I speed up to get to the second row and note that this has a slightly different feel with (seemingly) more younger or newer vendors on this side. (Which makes me wonder if vendors choose their own space or are assigned).

Close to the middle of the row, there is a kombucha and nutrition bar vendor with a tap encased in a beautiful wooden dispenser for cold brew and samples of kombucha. The vendor tells me the vendor 2 tents down (who is seated to the back working on other craftwork while someone else handles sales), made the display. We have a longish discussion about markets and intermediate sales for their business. They tell me they sell to a number of small businesses in the area but expect to maintain their farmers market presence to support farmers and to grow their business there, maybe even taking on more farmers markets in the future. 

I share tidbits of my research on markets including that many of the first “modern era” (1970-) markets began in university towns like Berea because the back-to-landers decided to stay  and grow organic food, so then created many of these new “grow it to sell it” markets; I say that it is interesting to me that markets in these towns continue to impress me with how they hold and even grow markets’ role in improving sustainability and introducing the area to products like hers Her quiet and firm reply that “it shows they (markets) are really about the shared culture” strikes me as rich with simple truth as we stand in an open pavilion on a cold fall morning in a town of 15,000 or so.

Finally I realize I am blocking a very polite shopper behind me and move away. I catch the eye of the woman I had purchased the persimmons from and smile from afar in thanks as I head toward my van to drive it to the next town.