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Blacksburg’s Solar Farmers Market (USA)

Credits: ©2011 Blacksburg Farmers Market

A renowned farmers’ market consultant was invited to Blacksburg, Virginia, to give an assessment of the town’s farmers’ market; she advised the town that the existing layout and structures did not provide protection from the sun or rain for patrons or vendors, plus adjacent traffic made the market unsafe for pedestrians. After hearing this assessment, Friends of the Farmers Market (FFM) founder, architect Kathryn Clarke Albright of Virginia Tech, sprang into action and initiated studies of alternative configurations and types of structures, and surveyed vendors for new ideas. The resulting Market Square Park and structure were dedicated in December 2009 just in time for the town's annual seasonal winter celebration. The design of the park and its timber frame pavilions is distinctive, topped with a grid-tied photovoltaic system that offsets the energy consumed by the farmers’ market. The town-owned corner lot measures a mere 135 feet x 160 feet or half an acre, but it accommodates a 5400 square foot pocket park with 12 trees, 19 parking spaces, 4 terraces with dining tables, 210 lineal feet of curving benches, and the 4500 square foot open-air structure for the year-round, twice weekly market, and other community events. On non-market days the park continues to be active with children running around, musicians playing instruments on a bench, or people sharing a picnic lunch. On the first Wednesday of each month musicians play in the evening throughout the year. The project cost was $782,000 (in 2010) and it received federal Community Development Block Grant funding, money from the town's general fund and funds raised by Friends of the Farmers Market.


Blacksburg Farmers Market PVs

Blacksburg Farmers Market PVs ©2011 Robin Rogers

Albright, associate professor of architecture in Virginia Tech's College of Architecture and Urban Studies, began research on farmers markets in 1998 with a particular focus on the Blacksburg Farmers Market. She extended her studies to farmers markets across the country to better understand their role as community gathering places and in some cases civic institutions. In 2001, Albright founded the Friends of the Farmers Market as a volunteer group of citizens who provide development and business support to the Blacksburg Farmers Market and enhance its role as a civic institution. Over the years its mission has expanded to include educational programs about the benefits of locally grown food and sustainable agriculture, as well as special events that enhance its role as a community gathering place within the region. Albright collaborated with Blue Ridge Timberwrights on the timber frame structure.

The following article by Kathryn Clarke Albright describes her research into farmers’ markets:

Architect Kathryn Clarke Albright’s interest in a farmer’s work arose from studying farmers markets as civic institutions and the types of markets in America. Conversation with many vendors revealed the choice to farm and the pleasures that the demanding work provides. Their daily ritual is accompanied by sweet surprises. Their cherished independence is complemented with camaraderie at the market. Their children benefit from a sense of community at the market. Conversations transform into lasting relationships.

It is universally accepted that work is labor and requires exerting purposeful effort. Most farmers I know would agree that whether plowing a field, harvesting a crop, or selling the bounty, all require work to some degree. The gains resulting from a farmer’s work are measurable by the sustenance provided and monies earned. However, there are by-products and/or pleasures resulting from most kinds of work that have value beyond the anticipated. In the situation of farmers’ work there are the purposeful pleasurable outcomes as well as unanticipated joyous ones.

Over the past two centuries of Amercia’s existence, agricultural labor efficiency has increased from 27.5 acres per worker in 1890 to 740 acres per worker in 1990. Mechanized farm equipment has reduced the time it takes to tend the fields; fertilizers and pesticides require time to apply but increase yields per acre. And a farmer’s work continues to change and evolve as advancement in science and technologies alters a farmer’s work on large and small farms alike. Due to innovations and other forces there are structural changes in farming that have altered the way the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] assesses farming today.

Farms across America have dwindled since their peak at 6.8 million in 1935, although there are more mouths to feed. Today the USDA estimates there are over 2.1 million farms in America with 90 percent family owned and operated. [3] However, since 2002 the number of small farms has increased 2 percent per year although the number of acres that comprise small farms has decreased. Until 2002 the USDA defined a small farm as consisting of 200 acres or less; today it considers under 50 acres to be a small farm. Between 1982 and 2002 the number of farms with fewer than 50 acres increased by 17 percent. According to the USDA 2007 Census, the number of small farms grew in 39 states, and in 21 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, increased over 5 percent. Notably, the farmers who sell at Blacksburg Farmers Market in southwest Virginia cultivate between 3 to 8 acres for their organic produce that garners in sufficient income.

Many of the farmers I have met over the past decade have choosen farming as a way of life for many reasons. Tenley Weaver of Full Circle Organic Farm located in Floyd, Virginia offers this encompassing view. “The farmers I know are very educated people, most of them have college degrees. They have had other professions and have many other options besides farming.

“We feel drawn to grow food. It is an incredible intellectual, physical, and emotional challenge of producing a crop. It is really a deep broad field, that has to do with the sowing of the crop at least as much as to do with the selling of the crop. It is a whole way life.” Her partner, Dennis Dove, who once taught in the College of Agriculture at Virginia Tech, concurs about the knowledge required to be a successful farmer, and often shares his wisdom about growing heirloom tomatoes and organic practices at local farmers markets, as well as regional agricultural events.

While it requires physical labor and lots of it, farming offers the capacity to live one’s beliefs in a direct way and alters how each farmer views their work. The independence it affords is often cited as a primary benefit, yet family is a strong factor. Lauren Cooper of Greenstar Farm in Blacskburg, Virginia sums it up; “my husband [Andrew Schenker] and I choose organic farming as a way of life because we are interested in creating a livelihood for ourselves that didn’t clash with our ideals. We wanted to be able to create for ourselves a way to earn an income on our terms and to be able to feel good about how our lifstyle affected the environment. Our farm is intended to be a sanctuary for people and wildlife as well as a livelihood.”

It is good news that the number of small farms are gradually on the rise and, even better, the number of farmers markets in America has nearly tripled from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,600 in 2008, and with an unofficial count of over 4,800 in 2009. This is important to the economic and ecological vitality of local communities in the face of globalization due to technological advances. At least two of the new digital technologies, specifically websites and email enabled by the Internet, have increased even the smallest farmer’s reach of distribution and farmers markets capacity to attract patrons. There is also an increase in the heightened awareness of the nutritional benefits of eating organic food as well as fresh food that has traveled less than 100 miles from farm to table.

This renaissance in farmers markets and small farms has brought additional meaning and value particular to each farmer. Fulfillment in a season’s work can be found in ritual coupled with surprise, independence paired with camaraderie, raising children with a sense of community and conversations that become relationships. Farming is a chosen way of life. In 2007, 22 percent of all U. S. farms have been in production 10 years or less.

Ritual & Surprise
The planning and execution of the repetitive actions that are inherent in farming suggest there would be predictability of the outcome and the surprise of unanticipated results would be limited. Some disruptions in daily routine can be offset through regular attention to maintenance of things such as machinery to avoid breakdowns that cause delays. And although there are known seasonal weather patterns, Mother Nature is full of unpredictability that tests a farmer’s ability to anticipate and compensate for a multitude of variables. Other surprises defy any relation to the routine or rituals of farming.

The routine of work on the farm spills over to farmers markets where the ritual of setting-up of each stall each time involves particular placement of the bounty of a day’s harvest, and yet when the patrons arrive to shop there is a sense of surprise and joy in the air. Alice Waters, acclaimed chef of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California asserts that “there are times of the year when we can hardly wait to go to the farmers market, in anticipation of the treasures we will find there.”

Independence & Camaraderie
The repetitive interaction among vendors selling at farmers markets offers camaraderie that serves to counter balance the hours spent alone in the fields on the farm. For farmers independence is treasured autonomy that is often viewed as one’s perceived control over the outcome of one’s work. Nonethless, self-reliance has a partner in camaraderie.

Both farmers and patrons value the solidarity that gathering on a regular basis provides. Most share appreciation of the work involved in producing the goods they sell, some commiserate about various difficulties entailed in farming, and others exchange stories of recent travels or their children’s achievements. There is always a tale to tell and someone to listen.

The camaraderie of social interactions for common purpose allows for casual conversations over time to evolve into lasting relationships. Camaraderie between vendors and patrons at the market fills many needs that the autonomy of independence cannot. The camaraderie leads to a sense of community among diverse groups of people who share an interest in fresh, local food and handmade goods.

Children & Community
For many the choice to farm centers on family. The rituals of farming find resonance with the daily activities of raising a family, both require performing particular activities daily, weekly, and seasonally wthout fail. Phil Mosser observes, “watching my children eat and love eveything that we raise is an incredible experience and makes all the hard work seem small.” Phil ‘retired’ from 20 years as a builder in Virginia Beach for the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors while providing for his family.

Farmers often bring their children to the market and they help in the selling of the goods. For some who home-school their children, the market offers necessary opportunities for socializing. The relationship among children, whether farmer’s, vendor’s or patron’s is typical for most public settings, yet many patrons develop special bonds with children of vendors and bring them gifts annually on their birthdays.

Like many public gatherings, coming to the market provides children with a better understanding of customs of the society in which they live.

Conversations & Relationships
Appreciation between vendor and market patron usually begins with conversation about the food being purchased. The exchanged words convey a mutual rapport. There is a sense of companionship among patrons and farmers although each has very different daily routines.

Farmers who sell at farmers markets know their customers by first name, know a bit of their lives and receive gifts from them. Some patrons visit the vendors farms. “In contrast to the anonymity of food bought from a food conglomerate, farmers and others marketing local food should not take for granted the appeal of “food with a face”– food that has a unique and important story behind its creation.”

UC Davis professor and environmental psychologist Robert Sommer observed though years of research that shoppers have up to seven times more social interactions at a farmers market as they do in a supermarket. For most people, the plethora of ways to communicate via the Internet or cell phone has not replaced the worthiness of face-to-face conversations.

Sustainable Agriculture in the 21st Century
The essence of a farmer’s work that has been presented here is work that matches ritual with surprise, joins independence with camaraderie, unites children with a sense of community and transforms conversation into relationships. Farming as an occupation of necessity has transformed into one of choice for many due to these by-products of subjective fulfillment that meet their own needs as well as interests of patrons.

The increase in the number of farmers markets and small farms in America is a trajectory that is changing how people view the necessity of agriculture for our collective well-being. Recent publicity of detrimental practices of ginormous-scaled mono-culture farming has given the general public a better understanding of the importance of sustainable agriculture and eating locally grown and raised food.

The structural change that more smaller farms promotes includes the formation of cooperatives and other networks of multiple farms whose ecological practices counter the so-called efficiencies of extremely large farms that grow with degenative practices that require large sums of money. One fairly recent example of structural change that alters how farmers cover their initial seasonal costs is Community Supported Agriculture, CSA. Robyn Van En of Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts introduced CSA in 1985. The concept is based upon building a network of patrons who buy shares “subscriptions” in a season’s crop prior to harvest, thus providing farmers financial resources at the beginning of a season which gives them more control over the business of farming. In 1990 there were 60 CSA’s and today due in part to farmers’ web sites and email, there are over 1,300 CSA farms.

In Floyd, Virginia over the past decade several farmers have formed what they refer to as ‘value-added’ enterprises that build upon each other’s production. In 1998 Dennis Dove and Tenley Weaver created Full Circle Organic Farm, and soon thereafter founded a co-op Good Food for Good People, GFGP, that led to opening Green’s Garage in 2006 which is home to their fruit share CSA and GFGP. Johanna and Brett Nichols started Five Penny Organic Farm in 2002 and sell their produce through the co-op GFGP at Green’s Garage. A few years ago they expanded their crops to include those needed to make beer. They opened Shooting Creek Farm and Brewery in 2009 and sell to local restaurants and beverage stores. 23 Tenley and Dennis farm without digital technologies but rely on the Internet to operate Green’s Garage. Many small, family-owned farms across America employ the Internet to increase their supply to a regional base of consumers who, given the awareness, will support sustainable agriculture.

Although changes in a farmer’s work in the 21st century now necessitate a few hours a week at the computer as well as at the farmers market, it will always require hours in the fields working the soil as they always have. “Technology is not changing agriculture. Agriculture itself is changing and the technologies are just a set of tools to deal with those changes and enhance natural resource and agricultural decision-making.” 24 Sustainable agriculture appears to be gaining ground at the human scale where the gratification of farming extends beyond the labor of work.


Blacksburg Virginia Farmers Market (Virginia, USA)

Blue Ridge Timberwrights (Virginia, USA)

Solar Connexion (Virginia, USA)