Attendees of the South of the James Market choose from 120 vendors at peak season. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
The temperature is brisk, in the lower 30s, but that doesn’t stop the foot traffic. Adults, children and four-legged friends funnel into a large picnic shelter parking lot in Forest Hill Park, past piping-hot hand pies from Empanadas Market, fresh seafood from Barham’s and plant-based meals from Vegtabowl Foods. A banner yells, “GOT WORM POOP?” There are craftsmen, cooks, jewelers, farmers, butchers, knitters, bakers and composters lining the lot that gets packed with more than 2,000 visitors on a given winter Saturday — and more than 3,000 in warmer months — at what is the largest year-round, producer-only farmers market in the state.
Not too far into South of the James Market’s vendor booths, but far into the event’s lifespan, is Cole Sullivan. He’s been here nine years. “I was a freshie,” he says from behind the table of Sullivan’s Pond Farm, his family’s goat-cheese operation that’s been selling here since he was 18 years old. In May, the busy market turns 10, but Sullivan remembers its humble beginnings, when he recalls only 20 or so sellers — a modest figure compared with the roughly 120 you’ll find this year at peak season. “It’s gotten so big that I haven’t even met most of the people anymore,” he says, “but I still appreciate them being here.”
Despite its dizzying growth, the market has managed to maintain its intimate spirit. It’s become a community gathering place, a connection to the region’s purveyors, and a bridge across ages, races and socioeconomic divides, working with programs such as EBT and SNAP.
“Which is the herb one?” a woman asks as she strolls up to the sampling table with her family.
“The blue is lovely,” Sullivan offers.
“I can’t imagine a 2-year-old wanting the blue.”
As it turns out, that’s her little girl’s favorite. The toddler shoves whole crackers thick with smears of the Chesapeake Blue cheese into her mouth, crumbs and crumbles sticking to her fingers. They’ll be taking some home.
The next stand over, Paige Craft is in her fourth or fifth year at the only market where she vends. The Just Bee Kind farmer and artist lives in Appomattox, leaving the house as early as 5 a.m. on Saturdays with her Volkswagen van full of soaps, lotions and honey, chicken and duck eggs, jars of jalapeño honey mustard, and, in the summer, 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes.
Sure, it would be simpler to avoid a four-hour round-trip commute, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s unlike any other market,” she says. “I’ve visited others, and for some, this is what it’s like in their summer. This in the summer, that’s not a farmers market — it’s an event.”
“I knew we were onto something really special, and I have to say I’m really proud of my staff and of our farmers,” says Karen Grisevich, the market’s manager and the owner of GrowRVA, the organization behind it.
In 2007, when 4th District City Council Representative Kathy Graziano approached Grisevich to create the Forest Hill market, Richmond’s Byrd House and 17th Street farmers markets were up and running, but neither grew to this scale. Ten years in, and South of the James has spatially reached its maximum number of vendors, just one reason sellers must reapply annually. New vendors also keep the selection fresh, though many favorites remain.
Mrs. Yoder's doughnuts (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
In one corner, the Yoder family hand-forms and fries yeast doughnuts that get coated with a heavenly vanilla glaze. Nearby, as Tomten Farm’s Autumn Campbell and Brian Garretson load up crates of spinach, collards, beets and parsnips, Campbell tells me this market alone comprises one-third of their income.
Throughout the decade, South of the James has helped fledgling businesses find a following. It has educated visitors about locally grown food. It has allowed musicians to find their voices through weekly performances. Hopefully, it will for another decade. “It’s been exciting to see how we’ve become a landmark,” Grisevich says, adding, “I’ll keep [going] as long as I have the energy to do it.”