June 9, 2018 10:00:41 PM
India Yarborough - [email protected]
Marvin "M.C." Ellis, 82, has been growing food most of his life. In 1997, he decided to make a business of it at the Columbus farmers market.
"It was a hobby for us then," Ellis said. "All we had basically were tomatoes. We saw pretty quickly we had to diversify."
Ellis is owner of Mayhew Tomato Farms. He and his son man a booth each Saturday morning at the Hitching Lot Farmers Market in Columbus, selling tomatoes, okra, jellies, pickled vegetables and plenty more. Their booth is one of nearly 30 that line the sides of Columbus' Hitching Lot pavilion, which faces Second Avenue North in between Second and Third streets.
It's where Ellis does about 30 percent of his business.
"At one point, we were doing 95 percent of business at our farm," he said. "Now we're doing about 70."
Katherine Lucas, market coordinator at Main Street Columbus, said hundreds of visitors of all ages pass through Columbus' market on a given day. It's the oldest farmers market in the Golden Triangle, having started in 1976. To be a vendor, everything a person sells must be grown, baked, or hand-crafted "in your home or on your property" within 50 miles of the market, Lucas said.
"The motto we run with is 'Grow local, buy local, eat local,'" she said.
Some booths are situated on truck beds, others have goods spread across tables and a few sit under tents or beach-turned-market umbrellas. In addition to produce, vendors sell flowers, herbs, handmade jewelry, baked goods, jellies, pickled vegetables, fresh tamales -- the list goes on.
"This is a farmers market town," Ellis said. "It's a gathering place, a social situation."
David Moody, 69, of Columbus, has been visiting the Hitching Lot every Saturday for about eight years. He visits many booths but is a Mayhew Tomato Farms regular for "the greens and the okra and sometimes the tomatoes."
Over the years, he has seen the market become a community staple.
"It's gotten bigger and better," Moody said. "I run upon a lot of my friends I haven't seen in a long time -- classmates, relatives."
A growing trend with small-town roots
That community staple is part of a growing trend of farmers markets around the state. Since Columbus' began, farmers markets have also sprung up in Starkville, West Point and, most recently, Caledonia -- all but the last of which have been recognized by the Mississippi Department of Agriculture, which lists 27 different markets around the state.
Eight years ago Dallas O'Bryant set up shop at the West Point Farmers Market. The 26-year-old West Point native partners with his father, Mark O'Bryant, to sell fresh, home-grown produce -- "everything but watermelon, cantaloupe and butter beans," Dallas said -- along with pickled and canned vegetables, honey, jams, jellies and salsas.
"When I started ... there were vendors who kind of took me under their wings and said 'Hey, you need to come to this market; come to Starkville and try it out,'" he said.
Now the father-son duo hosts a booth each Thursday under the pavilion at West Point's Mossy Oak Outlet. On Saturdays, Starkville is their marketplace. And when Caledonia began its "Market on Main" in May, the O'Bryants jumped at the opportunity to expand their reach.
"I guess I've been in it long enough now where people are requesting that I come to markets," Dallas said. "...It feels good."
According to West Point's market manager Lisa Klutts, most farmers sell at multiple markets. It's how they make a living, but it has also become a network of sorts.
That's why Amanda Boltwood, chairperson of the fall festival Caledonia Days, chose Fridays to host a market in her hometown, so as not to compete with the established Saturday markets. And she's glad she did.
"It brings life to the community," Boltwood said. "It's a good way to get people out on Main Street."
As farmers markets have grown and become part of a community's social scene, they've also begun hosting activities. The Caledonia market, held twice a month in May, June and July this year, boasts live entertainment. Performances, arts and crafts, cooking demonstrations and other programs have all become a central feature of local markets, enhancing the community feel.
"To have a farmers market, you also want to have something that's good for everyone in the family," said Paige Watson, special events and projects coordinator for the Greater Starkville Development Partnership and manager of the Starkville Community Market.
Watson said the Mississippi State University Extension Service helps with many of the Starkville market's programs, which include culinary demonstrations and story times with local celebrities.
In Columbus, Lucas said, Columbus Main Street works with the Columbus Police Department, Mississippi University for Women's Project CHEW, and others to promote healthy eating initiatives.
"Since we've added the children's activities, it's really gotten the community involved," she said.
But though farmers markets have become "a booming thing," Dallas said, they seem to stay true to their small-town roots.
"It's super laid-back," he said of the West Point market. "Nobody's in a hurry. Nobody gets in a tizzy over anything. It's that small-town, southern-town feel."
Gayle Carlock of Aberdeen, who sells homemade salsas in Columbus on Saturdays, agrees.
"Everybody's been so friendly," Carlock said. "If people think it's just for selling produce, they're wrong. It's like a big family."
Local farmers markets
■ Columbus: Hitching Lot Farmers Market - open Mondays 4-6 p.m., Thursdays 7-10 a.m. and Saturdays 7-10 a.m.
■ Starkville: Starkville Community Market - open Tuesdays 4-6 p.m. and Saturdays 7:30-10:30 p.m.
■ West Point: West Point Farmers Market - open Thursdays 5-6:30 p.m.
■ Caledonia: Market on Main - open June 22, July 13, and July 27 6:30-8:30 p.m.