This fall while flying home from a week of working on policy with farmers and legislators in Washington, DC, I briefly glimpsed this sacred place where city gives way to garden in the landscape. Rural places hold open space for all people everywhere. Rural places and rural residents steward land and water, provide food and fiber, harvest minerals and materials. We must be mindful of this intersection and we must intentionally maintain a dynamic balance of using, protecting and restoring our shared natural resources. But it is equally vital that we prioritize the support of rural economies and communities in their guardianship of these assets. The election showed us that rural populations feel increasingly resentful and unconsidered by the government, the parties, the pundits and the people who live elsewhere. It is time for rural people to lead the conversation around resource allocation and agricultural consolidation - for the health of our communities, but also of the earth. To do that we'll need to work hard to ponder a future that works for us and for all people, and attempt to communicate in aspirational language a way forward. We need to be educated and empowered to do better at conservation for sake of the planet. The best hope lies in lifting up rural stewardship of land, water, carbon and air. We must waste no time in stepping up.
Even though I’m one of those first-generation “niche” farmers, I always vowed I’d never do a farmers’ market. I got into farming because I like playing in the dirt and listening to frogs and crickets while I work. My dream revolved around shepherding animals, growing plants, shaping the landscape and healing a piece of land – all projects with no end point, no closure, no down time. So leaving my farm to sit behind a table for hours a week during the cool of the day seemed like the worst sort of time-wasting torture. And don’t get me started on the horrifying prospect of watching produce wilt on a table or be mauled by a clueless public.
So I built a CSA operation on my 20 acres in Driftless Wisconsin and grew the membership over eight years to 150 families, the majority of whom lived in the closest city, 45 minutes away. I enjoyed exposing my urban customers to amazing food, healthy recipes, pastured livestock and a taste of farm life. I loved connecting people to earth and nature and open spaces. But over the years, my heart began to shift. I got better at farming, I got great at marketing and I spent less time in a panic with my head down and my hands occupied from dawn ‘til dusk. I looked up and around. I occasionally visited the library, the café, the post office, the bars. I got to know my neighbors, and not just the farmers (who I needed to teach me about tractors and castration and government programs). Before I realized what was happening, I fell in love all over again – not just with my farm, but with my whole community, and my tiny town.
By the time I’d lived in the village of Blanchardville, population 825, for ten years, I was smitten. And that’s why I started a farmers market last year in the middle of our three-block downtown – next to Lady Dawn’s Sports Bar, across from the Viking Café and under a thirty-by-twenty-foot wooden pavilion built in honor of the Ryan Hotel Fire that took a building and some of our loved ones a few years back. The shelter is just big enough to shade the four of us regular vendors and the two or three extras who sometimes join us. We ain’t much, but we’re mighty.
See, farmers markets do all sorts of good in an urban environment – for health outcomes, for nutrition education, for small farm economic opportunities, for connecting consumers to the source of their food, for building relationships. But in rural communities, farmers markets are doing something magical, even miraculous. Markets are bringing people back into their hollowed-out and shuttered downtowns. And I believe – because I feel it in my heart, but also because there is a growing body of evidence – that open-air markets have the ability to lead a renaissance in such communities that can result, if indirectly, in filling empty brick-and-mortar shops, investing in trails and other public infrastructure, and ultimately in keeping and attracting young families that are the future our tiny towns.
This year I decided to discontinue my urban membership and only sell local CSA shares. I also changed to a Market Share program and had members pick up at my farmers market stand instead of the farm. Of course, in a market as small as ours, its awkward to come to one stand and not visit the others. So now all of my CSA customers are buying from multiple local farmers. And not only that, they are buying from the grocery store while they are in town, and the hardware store, and probably getting gas and possibly getting hot and hungry and stopping in at the bar. Here’s a quote from one of my long-time CSA members on the switch to picking up at the market:
“I thought the setting was terrific and the additional vendors complimentary!! Also, even though I have lived in the area almost 50 years and have visited Blanchardville mega times, the early Saturday morning outing was extremely enjoyable and showcased the wonderful area. Even stopped in the True Value for great looking plants (I need these like a hole in the head!).”
We do live in a wonderful area, as so many rural people do. But consolidation in agriculture has cost us all many farm families and the businesses that served them. We here have lost our cheese factory, our implement and car dealers, our clothing and furniture stores, the feed mill, a movie theatre and roller rink, a junk shop, an archery range and an A&W. Two of our existing businesses are for sale, and half of the downtown is empty. Locals tell me that when they were young, Main Street was so crowded on a Wednesday night that you couldn’t park. Those people came to shop, but they also came to see what all those other people were doing – and that’s the beauty of a farmers market in a tiny town. Activity attracts activity. In the tiny town next door, the village’s economic development committee has been supporting a farmers market with advertising and signage for five years. This year, that market has eleven vendors, and three new businesses opened on their Main Street in 2016: a grocer, a deli and an ice cream shop.
Two years into our farmers market, Blanchardville is already different on a Saturday morning. I’m banking my business and my energy on the proposition that the town I love can be full, thriving and busy again. Of course, none of us founding vendors are making much money yet, though the first thing I do after each market is eagerly count up my couple hundred dollars in ones and fives. What we are making is relationships: with each other and with like-minded people who come to hang out with us for a few hours each week. While we’re standing behind our stands at the market, we are talking more than before about the community, about what we need, about what might work here, about what we’d like to see and about what we’d be willing to do. We are meeting potential partners and investors and we’re connecting others to potential collaborators, as well. To me, that looks and sounds like rural re-development, and I believe that we are indeed rebuilding this tiny town – one tomato at a time.