It’s hard to believe, but the founding fathers may have taken a trip to their local farmers’ market. Of course, it wasn’t the same vibrant, bountiful type of market thriving in Virginia today, but the tradition of growing and selling fresh produce has been around for centuries.
Old Town Farmers’ Market
“Old Town Farmers’ Market (OTFM) has operated in the same location since 1753,” says Mae Carroll, farmers’ market manager at OTFM. “Famously, the produce from George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate was brought here by horse and buggy and sold on the same site where our farmers sell today.”
Set up in the Market Square Garage in Alexandria, the OTFM operates year round with roughly 75 vendors every Saturday. Visitors can expect local, seasonal produce, organic meats, dairy, eggs, baked goods and homemade snacks, plus live music, arts and crafts, chef demonstrations and even yoga.
Carroll says the market has a great number of dedicated shoppers and vendors, and history has played a role in that. “Some of our vendors are second- or third-generation vendors,” she says. “Many of the first-generation vendors have been attending the market for more than 15 years.”
Because it’s open year round, consumers can plan meals around local, seasonal choices. Plus, it provides vendors revenue in the cooler months.
Historic Roanoke City Market
Similarly, in Roanoke, the Historic Roanoke City Market has become a time-honored staple of the community.
“The Historic Roanoke City Market got its start in 1882 – more than 135 years ago – so as you can imagine, we’ve made continuous updates to our market to align with the times,” says Jaime Clark, marketing manager for Downtown Roanoke. “Our location in the heart of Downtown Roanoke remains the same, though, and we have many long-standing family farms that have been with us for generations.”
Two families, she says, have been with the market since 1904 and 1920, respectively.
Both markets have prevailed in not only offering fresh, local food to Virginians, but also acting as mainstays for the cities. They connect Virginians to the state’s agricultural past, while adapting to current times to keep up with local demand.
“The Historic Roanoke City Market has been a cornerstone of Roanoke Valley for so long, and our downtown is really centered around it,” Clark says. “Many Roanoke families grew up with these farmers, and it’s all part of a really great, local experience.”
The Historic Roanoke City Market is also open all year, just like OTFM, and features 42 permanent tables, plus additional spaces in Market Square for vendors to set up shop. Products sold include everything from fresh produce and local meats and cheeses, to seasonal seafood, fresh- cut flowers and handmade soaps and jewelry.
“Produce and plants are always very popular at the market, and the fresh-cut flower vendor is a customer favorite as well,” Clark says. “Our vendors have done a great job of diversifying their products to meet the needs of our customers.”
Thankfully, the number of Virginia’s farmers’ markets has grown since the days of George Washington. And the number is impressive. The state had 260 markets by 2016, which is a dramatic increase from 88 in 2006. Both Carroll and Clark agree that along with preserving history, markets serve an important purpose for both farmers and consumers.
“Now, more than ever, people want to know where their food is coming from. Being able to put a face with your food and talk to the person who grew it is an experience you won’t get at a grocery store,” Clark says. “Plus, the visibility and popularity of farmers’ markets has helped put a spotlight on farmers and aided in the many smaller- scale farms we’ve seen coming to the market. They help put a face to the industry.”