By Donna Cornelius
There’s always a crowd at the Market at Pepper Place, which on summer Saturdays fills several streets in downtown Birmingham.
Vendors come to the sprawling farmers market from all over Alabama to sell their fruits, vegetables, cheeses, eggs, baked goods and other fresh-off-the-farm products.
But plenty of good things can be found at smaller farmers markets, too. Three Over the Mountain churches host markets that have some advantages over larger events – and often, another purpose, too.
Good Neighbor Policy
The Market at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church
In its first year of existence, The Market at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church already has a loyal following. Pastor Leanne Reed said the market is a way to connect people with healthy, local food – and with each other.
“We were looking at ways we could be of service to the community and realized Mountain Brook didn’t have a farmers market like some of the other cities,” Reed said. “We wanted to help support our Alabama farmers and get to know them. You learn so much about their farms, their work and where our food comes from.”
She said a steering committee worked hard to get the market started, finding help through the Alabama Farmers Market Authority.
“They’re very supportive and have a lot of resources,” she said. “And as word has spread, we’ve had vendors get in touch with us.”
She said the market is intentionally small, with five or six vendors there each week.
“We have plenty of produce and a variety of vendors,” Reed said. “All are family farms. And all the vendors have food, because that’s how we wanted to focus.
“We have all kinds of fruits and vegetables and a meat producer with beef, pork and lamb. We have a honey producer; a lot of people like honey that’s fresh and local. Several vendors have fresh eggs.”
Reed said she’s a fan of the homemade salsa made by one vendor, who also offers jams, jellies and other treats.
The church on Montevallo Road has tried to make it easy for shoppers to get in and out of its parking lot.
“Montevallo Road is super busy, so we have a police officer to help,” Reed said. “We wanted to make it simple for cars and for pedestrians. We have parking, and it’s accessible for walkers and wheelchairs. It’s easy to make a quick stop at our market.”
Reed already had some experience with farmers markets before helping to start this one.
“I used to serve a church in Montevallo and helped manage the farmers market there,” she said. “Also, I love to cook.”
In addition to getting to know the farmers, Reed said she loves the interaction with people in the community.
“Seeing so many of our neighbors, church members, commuters – that’s been great,” she said. “We keep the sanctuary doors open. Even some people who live close by will tell us they’ve never been inside our church.”
And the most challenging part of the venture?
“We’re nervous every week about the weather,” she said. “We’re always keeping an eye on the sky.”
The Market at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church is open Wednesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. through Aug. 15. It’s at 2305 Montevallo Road in Mountain Brook. For more information, visit the market’s Facebook page.
Shopping and Sharing
Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church Farmers Market
Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church this year has a new venue and time for its farmers market – and the change has paid off.
Jarry Taylor, a member of the church’s four-member committee that organizes and runs the market, said the event was held for its first two years in the church’s parking lot from 7-11 a.m.
“That was OK, but we weren’t very visible from Highway 31,” Taylor said. “And the hours weren’t ideal because we were missing people on their lunch breaks.”
The committee decided on new hours – 10 a.m.-1 p.m. – and worked with the city of Vestavia Hills to move the market to Scout Square on Montgomery Highway.
“We talked to our vendors, and they were all excited about the change,” Taylor said. “So far, we feel we’re getting a lot more people to the market. It’s easy to see the tents and the signs.”
Like Shades Valley Presbyterian Church, the Vestavia UMC organizers worked with the Alabama Farmers Market Authority to get started.
“We got vendors’ names from the state organization,” he said. “We contacted them and also frequented other markets around town. We reached out to about 10 or 15 farmers to begin with.”
Taylor said the Vestavia market usually has about six or seven vendors.
“We’re trying to be deliberate and have a good mix,” he said. “We have about three farmers with vegetables and several arts and crafts vendors. GiGi’s Fabulous Foods brings casseroles and some baked goods. We don’t want to have too much overlap in what’s sold.”
Taylor said the thought behind starting the market was to “bring better eating opportunities, farm-to-market opportunities to the community.” But the church makes sure the market is a boon not only for shoppers and vendors, but also for the hungry.
“With the money the vendors pay us to be there, we buy produce for our church’s food pantry,” he said. “We buy fresh food from our vendors to stock our pantry.”
Taylor said the Vestavia market is user-friendly.
“People who may be unable to go to a larger market, because it can be harder to park and make your way around, can come to ours,” he said. “The tents are just a few steps away from the parking, and it’s easy to traverse.”
Taylor is one of the market’s fans as well as one of its leaders.
“My wife and I try to grow vegetables at our house,” he said. “But it’s nice when our tomatoes get hit with blossom end rot to be able to go to the market and buy them there.”
The Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church Farmers Market is open Wednesdays from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. through Aug. 8. It’s at Scout Square, 741 Montgomery Highway in Vestavia Hills. For more information, visit the market’s Facebook page.
West Homewood Farmers Market
The seed of an idea that launched one of the largest Over the Mountain farmers markets came from a question.
Kenyon Ross, now the West Homewood Farmers Market manager, said he was part of a small group at Shades Valley Community Church that decided to host a market.
“Ron Pate was our teacher, and he had a concept in the form of a question: ‘What is good?’” Ross said. “What Ron was saying is that, in the context of building community, we should ask what is good instead of asking what is wrong.”
He and other group members looked at the Biblical story of creation.
“It’s about things God has created and put humans in charge of,” Ross said. “In Genesis, God calls all of His creation ‘good.’ We have a direct impact on taking care of the earth; we have the land to work, the animals to eat and to love on.”
Ross said that, at first, he didn’t feel connected to the land and to animals.
“I had a pet, yes, and I took care of my property, but I got my food at the grocery store,” he said. “I felt a disconnect with this charge.”
He said helping to start a farmers market was a way for him and other group members to answer that call.
“This was something we could pour ourselves into,” Ross said. “A farmers market checked all the boxes. We’re helping the neighborhood to build community. We are supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we can do this through a love for community and building community.”
Now in its eighth season, the market has grown to include 58 booth spaces.
“We have every kind of fruits, vegetables, fresh meat, eggs, baked goods and even microgreens,” Ross said. “We have arts and crafts, food trucks and entertainment.”
Although you’ll find plenty of food at the market, you won’t be confronted with two things that can be controversial.
“Politicians can’t have booths or hand out flyers there,” Ross said.
And although he said he and other church members are “passionate about the Gospel and loving the Lord,” they aren’t using the market to proselytize.
“No churches, even ours, are allowed to have booths,” he said. “With our entertainers, we’ve had a couple of Christian singers, but we ask them to mix in secular music with Christian music.”
The market started small, with no more than 15 booths.
“We had it on Saturdays at first, but that meant every Saturday of the summer was taken for our volunteers,” he said. “The move to Tuesday was a big success. People can buy their vegetables for almost the whole week.”
Ross said promoting food that’s locally grown on land that’s been “farmed well” means a lot to him and others involved with the market.
“It’s also important to us for our vendors to do well and sell,” he said. “We pray for them.”
The West Homewood Market is at 160 Oxmoor Road in Homewood. It’s open Tuesdays from 5 to 8 p.m. through Aug. 7. For more information, visit westhomewood.com.