Market Fresh 

After a period of steady decline, the Nashville Farmers Market is in for a major overhaul

Nashville sits on the cusp of spring, bursting with the promise of brilliant flowers, leafy foliage and, soon enough, ripe red tomatoes. Walk into the Nashville Farmers Market on Eighth Avenue North, though, and that promise is just barely palpable.

Nashville sits on the cusp of spring, bursting with the promise of brilliant flowers, leafy foliage and, soon enough, ripe red tomatoes. Walk into the Nashville Farmers Market on Eighth Avenue North, though, and that promise is just barely palpable. Baskets of dusty turnips, spindly greens and a few winter squash line the beaten walkway in the market’s produce shed, but for now, that’s about it. Most everything else for sale—apples, oranges, bananas—likely traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to get here.

Inside the market’s cavernous main building, home to a kebab stand, an ethnic grocery and a handful of other mom-and-pop businesses, the mood can verge on downright gloomy. The winter may have been mild, but it’s been hard on the vendors who depend on steady business even during the coldest months. Almost to a one, they complain that sales have been on a steady decline. “The mood is, ‘Something needs to be done to get the Farmers Market back on track,’ ” says market director Jeff Themm.

But just as a farmer might look over a fallow field and envision rows of flourishing plants, Themm sees a place where citizens can come together and engage in the energetic trade that is the lifeblood of any public marketplace. “What I think about,” he says, “is a thriving community—farmers are thriving, customers are thriving and retailers are thriving. I want to see everyone enjoying this community, coming out here and finding fresh product, being able to talk to the farmer or the retailer, being able to sample it, taste it.”

With any luck, that will happen soon. The plans are almost in place for a $500,000 renovation that will help turn around this moribund institution, with its long list of deferred maintenance projects and its dwindling customer base. As soon as Metro’s Real Property Services, the office that supervises all construction projects for the city, finalizes the blueprints, and the five-member board that oversees the market approves those plans, the Farmers Market will transform into a place that customers, vendors and management have thus far only been able to dream about: a market to rival the ones in cities like Chicago, Milwaukee and Atlanta. Construction could start as soon as this summer.

Foremost in this transformation is a plan, already in motion, to recruit more local farmers—a move that will ensure the market stays true to the mission it was founded upon some 200 years ago. Much more complicated and controversial is the renovation of the main building. On its face, the plan is simple and sensible, but the steps involved are fraught with difficulty. For starters, more than a dozen vendors will be affected; as walls come down and the floor plan gets torn up, they’ll have to relocate inside the market and pay for the construction of entirely new businesses.

With vendors already complaining about flagging sales, many are wondering whether they’ll even be able to survive once crews come in and start turning the place into a construction zone. And yet, as marketing specialist Marne Duke explains it, “We’re at a point where it’s not that we want to renovate the Farmers Market. We have to. We’re in a downward spiral.”

The reasons for the market’s decline are manifold. Board members and management both point to the rise of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and ethnic grocery stores like K&S World Market, which have lured away customers with the promise of convenience and low prices. And it hasn’t helped that the Farmers Market has been subject to a history of erratic leadership that dates back to the hiring of director Larry Suiter in 1995, when the market relocated to its current site adjacent to Bicentennial Mall. Just two years later, he was fired after it was revealed that he’d run up a $200,000 budget shortfall.

The market operated more profitably for several years under the stewardship of Jim Cupit, until he too was fired in 2004 amid growing concerns about his oversight. Though Cupit initially “did a good job of getting the market to operate like a business,” says board member Bob Bernstein, “he was not a visionary, he had no long-term plan. Nothing was being done for maintenance, nothing was being done to improve things, and you could just see everything was coming apart.”

On top of that, Bernstein continues, “Cupit did not know how to respond to the board. He wouldn’t tell us bad news. We had to find out through the grapevine that there were certain vendors who weren’t paying rent.”

Cupit let the rent-collection problem drag on until it reached crisis proportions, while at the same time lashing out at vendors who questioned his leadership. “I saw at least two or three times in board meetings when he lost control,” Bernstein says. “He had no plan for what was going to happen in the future when the market needed more money and needed to fix things up. The city asked him to come up with a business plan and a direction for the last five years, and Jim had no clue what to do.” (Cupit declined to comment for this story.)

Complicating matters further was the fact that Cupit had made special arrangements with some of the vendors, most notably Khan’s Produce, which had an exclusive deal to sell produce inside the market building—a move that had unanticipated ramifications when, in 2002, Khan’s opened a competing store directly across the street. Almost immediately, the Farmers Market’s customer base started trickling away. “Khan’s was killing us because they had terrible produce here,” Themm says, “so we were getting a bad reputation and people were going across the street. I think that started the market’s downward slide.” (Khan’s closed its space in the market last summer.)

By the time Themm, whose previous experience includes managing both The Mall at Green Hills and Hickory Hollow Mall, came on board in 2005, things had only gotten worse. “There was turmoil among the board and the management, and the management and the tenants, ” he says. “There was a lot of finger pointing. It was not a good environment.”

Amid this downward slide, the Farmers Market was dealt another blow in July 2004, when it was slapped with an unexpected expense in the form of a $260,000 lease payment. Before that, the city had been covering the annual lease payment to the state, which owns the land on which the market sits. But in an attempt to balance the city’s own budget, Metro finance director David Manning dumped the responsibility for the lease back onto the Farmers Market. The result was a deficit of more than $190,000 for the market last year.

Together, Themm, Duke and the board have been trying to turn the place around, as they watch the market’s reserve operating funds evaporate away. “Before, we used to have a nice reserve fund, but no vision and no direction,” Bernstein observes. “Now we’ve got a plan, but no money.”

The Nashville Farmers Market is atypical in that it consists of three separate, if connected, parts. At the south end, closest to James Robertson Parkway, are the two long produce sheds that house a mix of local farmers selling their crops, produce resellers and the plant nursery Gardens of Babylon. In the middle is the main building, with its mix of lunch counters and specialty markets. And at the far end, closest to Jefferson Street, is the weekend flea market, with its cheap socks, Tupac T-shirts and Virgin of Guadalupe rugs.

In other words, not your average farmers market. Adding to the confusion is that few of the regular produce vendors—two, to be exact—are actual farmers, while the rest carry a mix of locally grown products and non-seasonal items, such as mangoes, that arrive here by boat, truck and plane. Marne Duke’s hope is that the market’s “Producers Only” section, set to open on April 20, will bring attention to local farmers while eliminating the misconception that anyone who sells fresh produce at the market must somehow be a farmer. She’s spent the winter months sending out queries to some 300 farmers within a 200-mile radius of the city, and already she’s received verbal commitments from several. In February, the market received a $10,000 grant from the state to help develop its local growers’ section, which is likely to expand as spring turns into summer and plentiful crops like tomatoes and cantaloupes come into season.

This plan is perfectly timed with a growing national awareness of sustainable agriculture—the idea that food production should be wrested away from big corporations like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland and returned back to local communities. It’s a concept that resonates strongly with Duke. “What we are trying to do at the market is more than just make this place look good,” she says. “The issues we’re addressing impact all of Middle Tennessee. Urban communities around the country are discovering that successful farmers markets can help sustain rural communities, preserve open space and improve the health of its urban residents. Our mission is to promote and support local farmers and strengthen the urban/rural connection in Middle Tennessee with the ultimate goal of financially healthy farmers and physically healthy urban citizens.” This month, the market instituted a ban on smoking inside the farm sheds and the flea market—a welcome decision for anyone who’s ever tried to buy produce and gotten a face full of cigarette smoke.

Helping Duke to recruit local farmers is Cindy Delvin of Delvin Farms in nearby College Grove. As president of the Tennessee Organic Growers Association, Delvin would love to see organic farmers represented at the Farmers Market, but she affirms the idea that localness is key to the market’s mission. “It’s important for small growers to have an outlet to sell their products, especially in a farmers market, where people can be in touch with the people growing their food and know face-to-face that this product was freshly harvested a day before they came to the market.”

And, as Delvin points out, the implications go far beyond healthy eating. “It’s a safety issue as well,” she argues, “and an environmental one. So we’re solving all these problems: we’re giving the farmer an outlet, but we’re also giving the public access to freshly harvested food that’s environmentally sound. It’s supporting the community, and it’s also helping the environment because it’s not being shipped.”

Complementing this community-oriented approach to farming will be a demonstration garden at the north end of the market. The garden is modeled on chef Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King Junior Middle School in Berkeley, Calif., where students prepare their lunch with the fruits and vegetables they’ve grown. “If you teach kids about where food comes from, when that food is set in front of them, they’re 20 times more likely to try that food,” Duke observes, citing a statistic from researcher Antonia Demas’ book Food Is Elementary. “We have to educate our children on where their food comes from, whether that means learning jelly comes from grapes, or hamburgers come from cows instead of McDonald’s.”

To that end, the Farmers Market will collaborate with Metro schools to make the garden part of classroom curriculum. “Through No Child Left Behind, teachers have certain requirements they have to fulfill in science and health every year,” Duke says. “We’re going through and highlighting those: if you come and visit our garden, here’s the curriculum for your classroom, and here are the requirements that it fulfills. For a third-grade class, we can fulfill eight requirements in health and science.”

Duke is currently looking for sponsors and grant money to help fund the garden and, eventually, volunteers to help run it. With so many other expenses demanding money out of the Farmers Market’s budget, she says, “That’s the only way we’ll get this done.” The goal is for the garden to be ready for public use in spring of 2007; weekends would offer an opportunity for adult education as well, with classes on organic farming or composting.

As the market tries to become a stronger presence in the community, its success will depend on the support of the people it serves. Though the immediate challenge is just getting customers back to the market, in the longer term, there’s the question of how to keep generating fresh ideas and energy, particularly when the tiny staff has so few resources to work with. Recognizing the need for some kind of support organization, two loyal customers, Cindy Wall and Jennifer Hagan-Dier, recently formed the nonprofit Friends of the Nashville Farmers Market (FNFM).

Wall also leads the Nashville chapter of Slow Food, an organization dedicated to preserving local food culture in an era when most people are content getting their meals from a drive-thru window. Her involvement in FNFM is a logical extension of that. “The food life of a community is as important as the buildings we preserve, as important as the greenways, as important as the neighborhood associations,” she observes. “When you think about it, there are few things, other than food and memories and meals together, that tie people together in a city. I hope that the Friends group becomes a kind of a formal way for people who love and use the market to make their support official. It’s a great way for citizens to say, ‘This is something I care about,’ and to say it in a meaningful way.”

Hagan-Dier, a native of Lawrenceburg who resettled in Nashville last fall, wants to see the Farmers Market reflect the kinds of places she patronized while living in Chicago. When she first visited the market after moving back to Tennessee, she says, “I was amazed that there was this fabulous entity but no farmers. I walked through and was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this isn’t a bigger deal! This kind of place in Chicago would be packed all the time!’ ”

Working in tandem with Duke, the two women are developing a list of ways to get Nashvillians involved in their Farmers Market. But one of their main priorities right now, Hagan-Dier says, is getting local farmers to the market, whether through outreach or simply offering a hand when they show up to sell their crops. From there, the possibilities are myriad.

“There’s a whole collection of programs and initiatives and outreach efforts the Friends group can take on,” Wall says, “whether it’s providing the volunteer power to ask a local chef to come and do a demonstration, whether it’s doing a film screening at night—the kinds of things that go beyond the market’s core mission, but continue to make it a really good gathering place for people who think about the food life of the city. Those things are often no more difficult than a little volunteer power to stand behind and complement what the staff already does—and that’s limitless.” (For more information on Friends of the Nashville Farmers Market, email Jennifer Hagan-Dier at jhagan13@yahoo.com.)

Recruiting farmers may be key to reinventing the Nashville Farmers Market, but the much gnarlier part of this process is the building renovations. Some are basic needs that should have been addressed long ago—for one, the dank, smelly bathrooms, which are long overdue for an update. Lighting and signage also will be improved and added throughout the building and the sheds.

Once all the work is done, the market’s main building will look completely different, with retail spaces aligned along the perimeter and seating in the middle. Roof vents are being constructed where possible, allowing for more restaurants to move in. A demonstration kitchen will provide a venue for cooking classes and special programming and will also allow any Nashvillian to come in and prepare food for sale at the market.

Themm’s ultimate goal is for the interior Farmers Market to be home to a diversity of restaurants and businesses, each complementing the other: a butcher shop, say, next to a cheese shop, next to a bakery, next to a hot dog stand, next to a sweet shop. At each corner of the building will be a restaurant serving both lunch and dinner—a change that would help to keep the market open in the evenings. Every one of the businesses would have to adhere to a strict set of design standards, a concept that not everyone in the Farmers Market seems capable of grasping. (In the longer term, Themm and Duke would also like to transform the flea market to complement the changes they’re making elsewhere; one idea has this area becoming a place where local artisans and craftspeople could sell their wares.)

But with many vendors already worried about making ends meet, they wonder, how can they possibly afford a move right now? And in some cases, a focus on increasing the quality of the market has some vendors complaining that the plans are extravagant and impractical—in short, an attempt to “upscale” the market. Chief among those grumbling is Mike Boyd, the owner of Java Jane’s and the neighboring Heavenly Dogs, who wonders whether Nashvillians even will support a revitalized Farmers Market. “This is not New York, this is not Philly,” he says. “It’s Eighth and Jefferson.”

The Farmers Market sits literally in the middle of a transitional area: to the west lie the low-income neighborhoods of North Nashville, while to the east sits the up-and-coming Germantown area, with its renovated homes and classy new housing developments. The influx of residents into downtown and the surrounding areas probably will help solidify the market’s customer base, but Boyd and other vendors say they can’t afford to wait several years for the downtown residential population to grow. Boyd “is confusing our neighborhood with our customer base,” Duke counters. “After polling 400 people, a number comparable to past surveys done at the market, North Nashville ranked as one of the lowest on the list of where our customers live.”

Still, there’s the immediate question of whether vendors can take a financial risk on relocating their businesses, and a perceived lack of communication from the market’s management has only added to the friction. “None of us have seen the final plan or rate structure,” Boyd complains. “They haven’t come to each of us and told us what’s expected. They haven’t told us who’s been recruited to move into the market. Everybody here is in the dark.”

Duke counters that until Metro comes back with finalized plans—and the board approves them—there’s not much anyone can do. “Much of the understandable frustration with current tenants has been the lag time between talking about a renovation and coming up with concrete finalized plans,” she says. “It would be counterproductive to show tenants proposed plans, only to have them changed as architectural plans always do. It often seems that ‘I don’t know’ or ‘we don’t have that information yet’ has been interpreted as, ‘I’m not going to tell you.’

“The ‘upscaling’ of the market is being used by some tenants as a scare tactic to say prices will shoot out the roof because of our renovation,” she continues. “The business plan calls for raising the quality standards of our facility and our tenants’ offerings and their presentation. We don’t think they need to raise their prices.”

More to the point, board member Bill Coke asks, what’s wrong with making the market nicer, and why should that mean shutting out low-income Nashvillians? “It’s not so much upscaling as it is making a unique place for people to come to,” he says. “People who may be less affluent [can still] come for the produce. We don’t want to lose any of that: the market’s for everybody.”

Duke says that they need to improve the facility so that more people will feel welcome. “Many people, regardless of background, want a pleasant, comfortable place to shop where they can get quality products at a fair price. And we’re working closely with our surrounding neighbors to become more a part of their community.”

The fact remains that vendors are at best guarded about the renovation plans, and yet everyone recognizes the need for change, even if they’re not quite ready to take the steps on their own. Among those is David Swett, owner of Swett’s Restaurant, which remains one of the market’s stronger draws. “If I was allowed to stay in the spot that I’m in, I would be glad to make some renovations and clean up and make some things new,” he says. “Moving to another spot would be something that I wouldn’t be interested in because of the cost.

“I think that what Jeff is trying to do with the market is good—I hope it’s good. Get the traffic back in there, and once the traffic is back in there, a lot of the problems will sort themselves out. Revenue makes things easy.”

Vendors have also complained about the timing of renovations—why does it have to happen now, when dust and construction debris are going to threaten the market’s dependable warm-weather business? Why couldn’t it have happened last winter, or wait until next winter? Management responds that it couldn’t have happened sooner. “When you’re fooling with the government, things go at a lot slower pace,” board member Coke says. “Whenever we have a plan, it has to go through the channels. You can’t just say, ‘We have a plan, let’s go with it.’ You have to go through channels that take weeks and months, and finally get a plan.”

Now, with the Farmers Market’s operating budget in the red, the renovations need to get under way while business has a chance of picking up, so that people will continue coming to the market once fall gives way to winter. “Right now we’re just barely breaking even. We’re not making a profit,” says Ouida Bradshaw, owner of the Caribbean restaurant Jamaicaway. “I cannot continue to go on operating the way that I am. When I look at other farmers markets around this country, it’s like a goldmine. You go to Atlanta, you don’t even have to ask, ‘Where’s the farmers market?’ because everyone knows. It’s wall-to-wall people.”

In the meantime, Themm and Duke are doing everything they can to make the changes as workable as possible. “A restaurant will obviously cost more to relocate than a store or small shop,” Duke says, “[but] we’re encouraging tenants to keep it simple.” A resourceful use of space, she points out, can go a long way toward keeping costs down.

As a trade-off for those vendors willing to take the financial risk of relocating their business, the Farmers Market management has explored options for keeping costs affordable in the short term—starting with three months of free rent. From there, rents will be charged at a flat rate based on square footage, and increases will be staggered over time to give revenues a chance to pick up.

Still, some vendors have proven implacable, among them Gulf Pride Seafood, which left the market last year on less than agreeable terms. Owner J.D. Johnson’s decade of frustration with management reached its breaking point when Themm took over. To say they had a difference of vision about the direction of the Farmers Market might be putting it mildly. “I think both [Themm and Duke] don’t know their butt from a hole in the ground about running a market,” he says. Though most other vendors were disappointed to see Johnson leave, board members say they don’t miss the toxic atmosphere he created at their monthly meetings.

Whether by default or by design, not every business inside the Farmers Market is going to survive this transition, and it’s been suggested that maybe those who can’t adapt don’t really belong there anyway. Of late, a mood of whiny, petulant infighting has taken over among the vendors, and it resembles nothing so much as high school. “They are fiercely independent people, and they feel very strongly about the market,” Coke says diplomatically. “I’m glad they do. But before Jeff came, they complained bitterly about the other director. I think it’s the mind-set that has to change as much as anything—one of working cooperatively.”

Another change that’s likely to engender some controversy is a plan to serve alcohol at restaurants inside the Farmers Market—something that would help attract regular dinner business and boost revenues. But when the measure goes up for approval before the Metro Council, it’s bound to encounter some opposition from some members, foremost among them District 14 council member Harold White, who was a fierce supporter of Jim Cupit’s. “It’s a family organization, it’s a family affair, and I don’t think we need to introduce children and families to that kind of atmosphere,” he says with a conviction that’s typically reserved for the Sunday pulpit. “There are plenty of restaurants and plenty of alcoholic establishments all around the county without bringing it to the Farmers Market.”

But as Duke and others point out, serving alcohol would hardly turn the Farmers Market into a den of iniquity. Greer Stadium, for instance, serves beer, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more family-friendly atmosphere. Still, White says, “I’m against all of it. I don’t drink and so, consequently, I don’t believe that drinking is a necessary thing.” But for those vendors who’d at least like the option to serve alcohol, it may be the difference between making ends meet and turning a profit.

Amid so much mounting tension and unease, it’s easy to forget that the Farmers Market already has a lot going for it, the stinky bathrooms notwithstanding. This month, the warm-weather days have brought back a modest lunch crowd, and soon enough the farm sheds will be bustling with activity, thanks to proactive businesses like Gardens of Babylon, which a couple years ago took over the space previously occupied by Betty Smith’s Nursery. “Having them there has made a world of difference,” board member Bob Bernstein says, “because they’ve got fresh ideas, energy in the blood and they’re thrilled to death to be there.”

At the opposite end of the farm sheds sits Smiley’s, the long-running family farm business based in nearby Ridgetop. With its plentiful supply of tomatoes, greens, squash and other vegetables throughout the growing season, Smiley’s offers proof that local farmers can thrive at the market if they offer a product worth purchasing.

It’s this combination of fresh ideas and time-tested success that will ensure the success of the Farmers Market, but right now, what’s needed most is patience and a willingness to compromise. “Are we going to get this whole plan done?” Bernstein asks. “I don’t know. I’d be happy if we could just clean up half the market. Jeff’s in a tough spot, but I give him credit for creating a plan that is in the short term economically feasible and in the long term should make the market more viable.”

In some ways, the timing for reinventing the Farmers Market couldn’t be more perfect. With a growing sense of urgency about greenhouse gas emissions, and with incendiary books and movies like Fast Food Nation and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price raising awareness of America’s destructive consumer habits, the public is more ready than ever to change the way it thinks about food production and consumption. “I really, truly believe that every small step toward a greater good is kind of like taking a chink out of the armor,” FNFM’s Hagan-Dier says. “It’s refocusing people back on their communities in a variety of ways and saying, ‘Look, you’ve got to take care of your own before you take care of the world.’ The day you meet someone who actually milks the goats that make the cheese, you’re more willing to pay a little bit more money to have that.

“I hope that those little things we do create an awareness we can make a difference. It has to—and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t hurt.”

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