The tradition of heading downtown for the Market Square Farmers' Market (MSFM) will return to Knoxville on May 2.
On a typical summer Saturday morning at the MSFM, the sweet smell of glazed doughnuts fills the air as produce is lifted and inspected by patrons looking for the perfect veggies and fruits. Baked goods are gobbled from their wrappers, and hot sauce and beef jerky are sampled for just the right heat. Friends run into one another as a sense of community overrides the the bustle that overtakes the city in the early hours.
MSFM began in 2004, created and sustained by volunteers. Since 2013, the market has been run by Nourish Knoxville, an organization created by one of the MSFM founders for the purpose of better connecting the community to quality, fresh food. Nourish also spurred the implementation of the Winter Farmers’ Market from January to April and the Christmas Market during December.
The organization has also created a free local food guide for East Tennesseans detailing where and how to get connected with local food vendors in the surrounding 28 counties. For example, MSFM was the first market of its kind to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in the state.
Dozens of vendors supply the products necessary for the market, all found within a 150-mile radius from Knoxville's city center. Every vendor is completely producer-run, and each farm is subject to regular inspections to ensure integrity of the vendors and trust of customers.
Two vendors who have been with MSFM since its inception and will remain this upcoming season are VG’s Bakery and A Place of the Heart Farm, but three new vendors are joining the ranks: Wildcat Mountain Farmstead Cheese, Blue Ridge Mountain Creamery and Three Graces Dairy.
The array of vendor options is vast. Bouquets brim from metallic containers, popsicles are sold from a frosty cart, jewelry and trinkets are admired by passersby, and coasters display landmarks of Knoxville and its history.
The MSFM, in fact, has its own place in Knoxville history. It takes place where Knoxville’s Market House began in 1845, built on the land of a wheat field donated by two businessmen.
Ellie Moore, Nourish Knoxville’s market manager, spoke of the dedication required to develop a market and of one of the volunteers, Art Carmichael.
“Creating a strong, sustainable farmers’ market is no easy feat and requires the cooperation and support of several entities to guarantee success for both our customers and our vendors,” Moore said. “Art Carmichael has persisted and volunteered practically every Saturday since day one.”
Carmichael moved from Philadelphia to Knoxville in the early 2000s, when the downtown area was barely populated. He believed strongly in downtown spaces where people could live that had walking access to city life.
“Art moved to the heart of the city and wanted somewhere to shop and something to do in his ‘backyard’ on Saturdays,” Moore said. “He showed up at the first planning meeting and has continued showing up for 15 years. The MSFM would not exist if not for Art, and for that and his infectious laugh we are so very thankful.”
While the market embraces the community, the community embraces it right back. Matt Gallaher, a downtown chef at Knox Mason and Emilia, sources his food locally through the MSFM.
“In peak season, we spend up to 70 percent of our food dollars on local and regional producers, which would not just be impractical but nearly impossible without MSFM,” Gallaher said. “Hand-selecting just-picked produce allows me to offer the highest quality to my guests, and by supporting local producers we’re able reduce waste from over-ordering, we’re supporting the local economy, and (we're) contributing to the overall health of our precious East Tennessee home.”
During peak tomato season, the market offers a Tomato Tasting as a way for customers to determine what varieties suit their taste buds and as a contest among growers. Tomatoes are divided into cherry, heirloom, paste and hybrid, varying in shades of purple, red and yellow. As the summer wanes and autumn arrives, the market adjusts accordingly, offering hand-poured coffee on brisk mornings and seasonal selections such as cabbage, root vegetables and collards.
Coffee mugs, T-shirts and posters can be found toted around town advocating for the MSFM. The demand for them has increased as the popularity of the market has grown as a Saturday tradition.
“Our 2017 and 2018 prints are illustrated, created, and screenprinted by local printmaker Ashton Ludden,” Moore said. “Our prints began as advertisements for market, but folks around town found them pretty attractive … That's when we began selling the prints as a source of revenue for market.”
The summer market runs May 2 through Nov. 17 on Wednesdays from 11 to 2 p.m and on Saturdays from 9 to 2 p.m.