The clanging of the bell reverberates across the shaded parking lot at 2727 Jackson St. signaling that the Alexandria Farmers Market is officially open for business.
But even though the market officially opens at 3 p.m. every Tuesday, regular market visitors show up early to chat with each other and the vendors. The market is as much a social experience as it is a business.
“It’s experiential. It’s fun to visit with folks,” said Bahia Nightengale, Louisiana Central’s executive director for farm and food. Louisiana Central is the area’s regional economic development organization that sponsors the market which draws visitors and vendors from all over Central Louisiana.
There are about 15 markets in Central Louisiana they are listed on the Louisiana Central website.
“And those are just the ones we are aware of,” she said. “There’s no statewide or state-directed association of markets. There’s no one that reports that information.”
The surge of local farmers markets is following a national trend, said Audrey Kolde, Alexandria Farmers Market manager. She virtually attended “InTents: The Farmers Market Conference” that brought in experts from across the country who noted the nationwide surge.
“It’s really amazing to see rural farmers markets thriving all the way to big cities that are just bringing that celebration of culture in different ways,” Kolde said,
“Good stuff” to buy
On average, Alexandria Farmers Market has about 20 regular vendors and sees about 300 visitors per market day. Kolde said even on rainy days the market will see over 100 people because they have faith that if they put in the energy to go in the rain, there will be “good stuff” to buy and people to see.
Meeting people is one of the reasons why Linda Gaston and husband Samuel have vendors at the market since it opened. They sell the baked goods Linda makes such as pecan and sweet potato pies, pralines, popcorn balls, brownies, bread pudding and strawberry, lemon and carrot cakes.
“The nicest people that come out here,” she said. They like to sit down and talk with visitors under their tent.
“We have fun just coming out here. I’m retired and we don’t have anything to do so is what we do,” she said.
The couple used to sell at seven markets in the area but decided just to sell at the Alexandria one.
“I’ve met so many wonderful people at our local farmers’ markets, and that’s one of my favorite reasons for shopping there,” said Ann Lowrey. “It’s a great outdoor place to see friends who share your love of local, independent, homegrown ‘good stuff.'”
Lowrey said she became “instant friends” with Debbie Gilley, owner of Debbie’s Meat Pies, at Alexandria’s downtown event, Indiefete.
“I love buying meat and fruit pies from her,” she said.
It all started with a suggestion
Mary Rogers and her husband George, who own Jelly by George, first started selling their canned goods and produce several years ago at the market Inglewood Farms used to have on Saturdays. They were among the first vendors at that market.
The Rogers got started selling at farmers markets after growing a lot of produce one year. George cans all their produce. They were giving it away when someone suggested that they try to sell it instead.
They took some of their canned goods to Inglewood and it sold out. That got them hooked. They sell items such as pickled okra, salsa, pickled beets and jellies.
“I like making things. I’ve always been a maker,” Mary Rogers said. “The frosting on the cake is when someone else likes what I make. For me that’s an affirmation.”
She and La Shawn Augustine, owner of Eye of the Butterfly, a skin and body care line, also run the Cabrini Farmers Market held from 9 a.m.-noon every Saturday in the back parking lot of St. Frances Cabrini Church on East Texas Avenue. Rogers lines up the vendors while Augustine handles the social media. The market, once sponsored by the Alexandria Farmers Market, was going to be discontinued before Rogers and Augustine stepped in to to keep it going independently.
“I like shopping at the farmers market because I believe in supporting local vendors and talking about their products,” he said.
Connecting food with local faces
Lowrey has a variety of reasons why she shops at local farmers markets.
“I like to buy produce grown locally from people I know. I don’t have a green thumb or much spare time for a vegetable garden, and, for me, this is the next best thing to growing my own,” said Lowrey. “My first Whole 30 taught me a lot about how much junk is in the food that is plentiful in supermarkets, and how much better I feel when I avoid processed food.”
She also also “become more conscious of how environmentally unfriendly it is to truck food across the country.”
“For example, it seems especially silly to buy California strawberries from a supermarket when Louisiana strawberries are so delicious and readily available here,” she said.
Kolde and Nightengale said local produce, especially fruits, is the most in-demand item along with dairy, homemade body care products that are sourced with Louisiana ingredients and baked goods.
“People come for the cultural things that are hard to find in a store like okra and mustard greens,” said Kolde. “Summer vegetables. People really love summer vegetables. No one’s going to say no to a homegrown tomato.”
With the recent disasters, Kolde said farmers markets are great building blocks to re-bind communities together.
“I think in the midst of disaster we often seek out the closest hands and closest smiling faces. That’s where I see that trend coming from,” she said.
“During the height of the pandemic, I tried my hand at making my own sourdough bread, sauerkraut and kombucha,” said Lowrey. “It’s nice to know I can do those things if I need to but I gained a whole new level of respect for folks who are able to do this consistently.”
Now that she knows how much time is involved making those products, she said she “will happily pay Brickhouse Bakery to bake a loaf of bread for me. This family operation is one of my absolute favorite vendors.”
“People in the community realize that they have wonderful opportunities to have fresh produce and meat,” said Rogers.
Kolde said there was a surge in farmers markets in the early 2010s which is how the Alexandria Farmers Market got its start. That interest waned but she is hope the current resurgence holds.
The Alexandria Farmers Market offers a Kids Club that grants help fund, said Nightengale. Children under 18 that come to the market are given $5 to shop for fresh fruits or vegetables.
“We do a SNAP match program and we accept SNAP here. And that’s another reason why people come. It makes their SNAP benefits go a lot farther,” she said. “We also do the Farmers Market Nutrition program for Seniors and Women, Infants and Children.”
In addition, the Alexandria Farmers Markets hosts about 8-10 events a year. The next event, “Spring EGGSTRAVAGANZA!” is set for April 12 and celebrates the egg. There will be an egg hunt, egg toss and crafts related to eggs.
“There is so many different ways people can buy food,” she said. “Now you can order it in boxes and things like that. People are getting more and more everyday aware of where their food comes from.”
Louisiana Athletic Club Farmers Market: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. every Monday at the Louisiana Athletic Club, 1135 Expressway Drive, Pineville.
Alexandria Farmers Market: 3-6 p.m. every Tuesday at 2727 Jackson St., Alexandria
Versailles Farmers Market: 3-6 p.m. every Wednesday at 94 Versailles Blvd., Alexandria.
Boyce Farmers Market: 3-6 p.m. every Thursday at 627 Pacific Ave., Boyce.
Pineville Farm Stand: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. 930 Main St., Pineville.
Cabrini Farmers Market: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. every Saturday in the back parking lot of St. Francis Cabrini Church, 2211 Texas Ave., Alexandria
Deville Farmer’s Market: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Held once a month on a Saturday at 1001 Hwy. 1207, Deville.
Colfax Farmers’ Market: 9 a.m.-noon Saturday Pecan Festival Building, 611 8th St., in Colfax.