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Roadside renaissance for farm stands

The farm stand of our dreams looms beyond, over the next hill, beneath the boughs of a pecan tree. It's a lean-to with a packed dirt floor, clapboard walls and a corrugated tin roof. Simmering pots of boiled peanuts line the plywood counter. Rickety shelves hold decommissioned mayonnaise jars full of homemade chowchow.

In the foreground, a customer sniffs a tomato, still warm from the field; she brushes a talcum of soil from a crookneck squash. At the rear, a farmer dressed in knife-creased overalls paces the floor, musing about the weather.

It's an appealing image. But crass statistics sketch a bleak reality. The number of farms in America has fallen from nearly 6 million in 1935 to less than 2 million today, according to U.S. Census figures. And the average size of a farm has grown fivefold. With that growth has come the rise of corporate agriculture, the demise of family farms and the slow fade of roadside farm stands stocked with local provender.

The end has long been predicted. During the Depression, Walker Evans shot photographs of hardscrabble Southern farmers, jaws set and backs unbent, standing beside roadside stands stacked high with mop-tasseled corn and rattlesnake watermelons. More recently, Juan Williams and John Francis Ficara published "Black Farmers in America" (University Press of Kentucky, $49.95), a plaintive portrait of downcast men driving tractors and defiant men confronting take-a-number USDA bureaucrats. This fall, photographer Perry Dilbeck of McDonough, who tramped the turn rows of Georgia, will publish "The Last Harvest: Truck Farmers in the Deep South" (Center for American Places, $32.50, September).

These works are elegiac. They make it clear that something is being lost, that some tether to our agrarian roots will soon be severed. But keep that black bunting furled. Even as the mythical farm stand recedes from view, our region is reawakening to the import of local produce from farmers who know the angle of a turn row.

Urban is where it's at

Call it the yuppie farm market. Call it the green market. No matter the name, in the modern South, at urban markets oftentimes set in parking lots, farmers — some born to the soil, some corporate downshifters — are hawking dollar-a-pop heirloom tomatoes to Food Network acolytes. And grandmothers intent on making jams and jellies are elbowing their way through clutches of vegans, past artisanal cheesemakers and sunflower-peddling retro-hippies, buying pecks of biodynamically grown blueberries.

Consumers are, typically, affluent. And they understand how their purchases can be interpreted as sociopolitical acts.

Most Saturdays, Anne and Jack Sineath are among the first arrivals at the 11-year-old Morningside Farmers Market on North Highland Avenue in Atlanta. Without a twinge, they recently dropped $20 on a bag of "old-timey beefsteak tomatoes" destined for tomato sandwiches and pizza Margherita. "The love and attention these farmers put in their products makes you appreciate them," Anne Sineath said. "I try to buy from every farmer there."

Saturday morning is the time to shop. It's also the time to socialize. At Morningside, customers sip fair-trade coffee and gossip, while rooting for purple fingerling potatoes alongside off-duty chefs like Michael Tuohy of Woodfire Grill and Steven Satterfield of Watershed. Over in Birmingham, Pepper Place Market programs music stages and plays host to volunteer sign-up stations for local nonprofits. Meanwhile, at the downtown market in Fayetteville, Ark., Mexican immigrants arrive in time for the Spanish-language walking tour and stay for the Ozark Iron Chef competition.

Tailgates and card tables

Of course, traditional roadside markets have not vanished. Not yet. But city dwellers like the Sineaths may have to look harder and travel farther to find them.

Drive U.S. 84 between Donaldsonville and Thomasville, across the southern belly of Georgia, and tailgates heaped with corn and card tables stacked with tomatoes come into view every couple of miles.

Over in Mississippi, on U.S. 49 between Jackson and Hattiesburg, the lag between stops is longer, but you get the chance to meet people like the country-boy clerk at App's Fruitstand near Mount Olive who blasts thug rap on a boombox and, over the din, shouts praise for local ribbon cane syrup and mayhaw jelly.

Or travel southeast from Mobile, and on Ala. 59, just after a bend in the road, you'll come upon Ike Byrd's stand, blazoned with signs that recall a lapsed Stuckey's, the shelves flush with homegrown Sugarbaby watermelons, Silver King corn and Irish potatoes.

Nearby, in Loxley, Burris Farm Market endures. It's a six-day-a-week temple of local produce, a cement-floored barn of plenty, overflowing with pinkeye peas and speckled butterbeans, where Evelyn Lindsey, a 69-year-old stocker, answer queries about her tenure by saying, "I'm just a country girl. I love to put up pretty vegetables."

Sustainable model

Ben Burkett, 54, raises pretty vegetables. And watermelons, too. He plows 40 acres near Petal, Miss., not far from the Louisiana line. As a child, he traveled with his father to sell watermelons and okra at the French Market on Decatur Street in New Orleans. In his youth, he sold from the bed of his pickup, parked near the bridge on the West Bank.

Although Burkett works the same farm his family has been tending for more than a century, he has honed modern ideas. As director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, he builds sustainable economic models for embattled farmers. He sees new urban farm markets as part of the solution.

"They made it difficult for a man to sell what he raised," says Burkett of the power structure he faced during lonesome days working from a tailgate. "Wasn't long before I was selling at Crescent City. A man can make a living here."

Since its founding in 1995, Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans has emerged as the South's farm market leader, a locus of agricultural commerce, sure, but also a marketplace of ideas where regulars build community bonds and green entrepreneurs incubate businesses. Set in a parking lot on Magazine Street, it's a place where the past is respected, the future plotted.

Richard McCarthy, 41, the founder (and director) of the affiliated Economics Institute at Loyola University, understands the links between past and present. He knows that family farms and farm stands are growing scarcer. But, in league with men like Burkett, McCarthy — a native of New Orleans with a graduate degree from the London School of Economics — sees opportunity.

Follow McCarthy on a Saturday morning. He weaves through the market (one of two New Orleans markets that, post Hurricane Katrina, fall under Crescent City's banner), squirreling blueberries away in a shoulder-slung cooler, glad-handing farmers and perusing the display of avocado-flavored Mexican popsicles known as palettas.

"Markets are not endpoints," he says. "For urban dwellers, they are gateways, offering a taste of the countryside, a reintroduction to the rhythms of the region."

Such talk may sound wonkish, but McCarthy is not. He's a pragmatist who grew Crescent City from a place to buy vegetables to a fulcrum of community. That was the intent. Now he wants to apply his market model to other segments of society. He even talks of markets as catalysts for "re-democratizing our economy."

Ask McCarthy whether such theories play in the real world, and he will talk of how he and Burkett have, by establishing the true value of farm-fresh foods, worked to stanch the tide of black farm foreclosures. He will talk of how Commander's Palace, the famed Garden District restaurant, has brought new line cooks here to introduce them to the local ecosystem. He will talk of how he aims to refocus consumer attention away from chefs and toward the men and women who work the land, refashioning farmers into "rock stars of agriculture." Or he will just lay a sheath of economic impact studies on the table before you and crunch numbers until you cry for mercy.

Better yet, if you're hungry, McCarthy will direct you one street over and a few blocks down to Cochon, the new Cajun-inspired restaurant. There, chef Stephen Stryjewski garnishes a roasted corn and rice cala with explosively sweet grape tomatoes that, were it not for chef-farmer alliances forged at the market, might never have made it beyond the bounds of Jim Core's Folsom, La., farm.

Scratching a niche

Skeptics may argue that these new farm markets, with their displays of herbal soaps and bins of miniature vegetable exotica, are somehow fey, that they smack of West Coast instead of Deep South. And they sometimes offer shopping experiences that are not affordable or altogether welcoming to working-class consumers.

But the goals are noble, the prospects for the future bright. The Georgia Grown Cooperative, a consortium of farmers and chefs and other interested parties, pledges that, within five years, everyone in the state will be within a 30-minute drive of a farm or market selling local and organic goods.

Richard McCarthy shares that optimism. An unabashed fan of places like Burris Farm Market, McCarthy sees a back-to-the-future farm stand looming around the proverbial bend. "What we're doing is reinventing the old tradition of markets," he says.

Although the goals of Georgia Grown are measurable in miles, McCarthy works in a looser vernacular. If the ideals of Crescent City gain traction, we will soon live in a South where a man, one generation removed from the farm, can buy a poke of crookneck squash at a roadside shed while his city-born wife, who learned to cook Italian by studying the collected works of Marcella Hazan, picks over the blossoms and eyes the fresh ricotta she'll stuff inside.

Come to think of it, some of us already live there.