The Williamsburg Farmers Market and its Colonial Roots

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Photo courtesy of the Williamsburg Farmers Market.

Photo courtesy of the Williamsburg Farmers Market.

Although the current Williamsburg Farmers Market, located in the heart of colonial Williamsburg, was started in 2002, the city has a long history of farmers markets dating back to the mid-1600s.

The Williamsburg Farmers Market has 63 vendors that offer a variety of locally sourced goods and services, from seasonal produce, meats, cheeses, breads and desserts, to knife sharpening, goats milk soap and Christmas wreaths.

Each Saturday morning, Merchant’s Square fills up with vendor stands and crowds. Tracy Herner, the Williamsburg Farmers Market manager, said the market has about 1,200 customers each weekend. Over the past 12 years, the Williamsburg Farmers Market has become a traditional gathering spot for locals and an attraction for those visiting Williamsburg.

“I think farmers markets are bringing back neighbors and neighborhood connections,” Herner said, noting that the farmers market is always held on a consistent day of the week. “I know people who purposely meet up at the farmers market every Saturday … and tourists make it a part of their visit.”

Williamsburg has had dozens of farmers markets over the last couple hundred years, many of which failed, Herner said. The first farmers market was created in 1649 under the Town Act, which granted James City County a weekly market on Wednesday and Saturday, but this market was declared a failure by 1655. Another market opened up in 1677 that occurred twice a year in April and September. This market included trade with Native Americans.

After the capitol was transferred from Jamestown to Williamsburg in 1699, William and Mary students requested a market. The Town Act granted a market two days a week in 1705 and allowed the market more space if needed. There was a period of time that the farmers market seemed to have disappeared, but it was started up again by the first quarter of the century. The town government also granted permission for two annual fairs. Stalls were rented to butchers selling grass mutton or beef in 1745.

The first farmers market held in Merchant’s Square was in 1757, where it was noted that the south side of the market was still a wooded area. A new market was established in 1830, however, the market switched around to different locations in the years before and after. It is documented that the farmers market was once located at the Guard House in 1770, Powder Magazine in 1791 and at The Powder Horn in 1857. But eventually, the market made its way back to Merchant’s Square, where it’s located today.

Herner assures that the current market is here to stay because of the county’s support.

“(For other farmers markets) there’s always the chance the city could say no,” she said. “We don’t have that same worry.”

Today’s visitors can find a plethora of goods, ranging from seasonal fresh vegetables and fruits, jams, peanuts, baked goods, raw honey and bee products, handmade chocolates, natural perfumes, dairy products, wines and several types of meats, including lamb, poultry, bison, grass-fed beef and seafood.

“We are careful so that there’s a huge variety each week,” Herner said.

The Williamsburg Farmers Market keeps a percentage-based blend to ensure variety, Herner said, with direct growers and producers making up 63 percent of merchants, while the rest offer prepared food (baked goods), wreaths or services like knife sharpening.

In order to qualify as a vendor, the goods have to be Virginia grown and produced, with an emphasis on the Eastern Virginia region, and there has to be a need for the product, Herner said.

The market tends to highlight the produce, she said. The farmers market also features music performances, a chef’s tent and educational programs.

The Williamsburg Farmers Market is a non-profit, with all revenue going back to the vendors, according to Herner. She said it is her duty to foster a connection between the market’s visitors and the farmers.

“Whatever money is made, we put back into making them (the vendors) more successful,” she said. “It is our mission that they succeed.”

Herner visits the farms periodically to ensure that the farmers are upholding their practices. She said the visits are fun for her because she gets to see what the farmers do firsthand.

“It gives me the behind the scenes,” Herner said. “Most of the vendors are really excited to be able to show off what they do and show us around.”

She also enjoys the farm visits because she gets to hear each farmer’s unique story.

“One component of my job is to really market them,” she said. “Most of the time when I go out there, I really get to hear their story and their story is really what builds their customer base.”

Herner encourages more people to visit their local farmers.

“The farmers go to the market every Saturday and that’s what you associate them with,” she said, “but they’d rather be on their farm and they’d love to talk to you about what they do.”

There are currently two vendors who are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: Amy’s Organic Garden and Blenheim Organic Gardens. However, many of the other vendors practice organic farming without the official label, Herner said, citing the additional paperwork and expense as the main reason for foregoing the certification process. Most of the vendors use GMO-free seeds, she added.

One of the market’s vendors, Georgiatown Farm, operated by Karen Doyle, practices organic farming methods without the USDA organic certification. Doyle raises heritage breed livestock to produce high quality lamb, pork and poultry meats.

Herner said the customers at the Williamsburg Farmers Market tend to have a greater concern for their health, the environment and animal welfare.

“I’ve seen a large increase in people caring about how and where food is grown in the past five years in Williamsburg,” she said. “This area has historically been an agricultural area, but had moved toward large agriculture and away from smaller family farms. The more grocery stores and frozen food options, the less people really knew about how things were grown, raised or processed. I’m pleased to see that mentality changing.”

There’s a trend among Williamsburg residents to get to the root of where their food comes from, according to Herner.

“One part of our success is that the people in Williamsburg want to get back to their roots and know what’s in their food,” she added. “They also don’t take for granted that things in the grocery store may say ‘farmers market fresh’ and they know that it might not be necessarily farmers market fresh.”

To combat the common belief that farmers markets are for the wealthy, the Williamsburg Farmers Market started a food stamps matching program last year to make the market affordable to everyone.

“We’re trying to make it less of an elitist market,” Herner said.

Those on the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can use their EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card, credit card or William & Mary student card to purchase wooden tokens at the market, each worth $1 each. These tokens never expire and can be used to purchase virtually any goods at the market.

Those enrolled in the SNAP program can also get an additional match of up to $10 a week under the market’s Fresh Food Fund.

Herner said each farmers market is unique in its own way, which makes it fun to go to.

“You can go to five different farmers markets and they’re all different and you can find things that you wouldn’t find at the others,” she said.

The Williamsburg Farmers Market starts at 8 a.m. and lasts until noon on Saturdays through the summer. The autumn and winter markets begin at 8:30 a.m. and close at 12:30 p.m.

See the full list of vendors.

Shelby Mertens

About Shelby Mertens

Shelby Mertens is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in Mass Communications - Journalism. She was the arts and culture editor of The Commonwealth Times, VCU's independent student press. Shelby was a blogging and social media intern for Gandzee, an online retail startup in Richmond. She covered the General Assembly session last spring for Capital News Service on behalf of over 70 news publications across the state. She has also published work on WTVR-CBS 6's website, a part of the iPadJournos project at VCU.