VOL. 8 | NO. 12 | Saturday, March 14, 2015
Leaving a Life They Love at Nashville Farmers’ Market
TIM GHIANNI | The Ledger
Charles Hardy needs help loading a huge piece of his life: a massive white refrigerator that was part of the Nashville Farmers’ Market home he’s leaving – likely for good – after almost a half-century.
A gentle-enough soul, and quick to smile, he doesn’t have time for an interview with the old journalist who descends on the near-empty Farm Shed One, just off Rosa Parks Boulevard.
The wind from an approaching storm has Charles, his wife Ann and others rushing to pack up so they can leave for the final time their lives’ prime location.
“It’s like leaving home,” Ann says. “We’ve been here for almost 50 years. We’ve spent more time here than we did at home.”
The Farmers’ Market has been the Hardy family’s primary source of income for nearly the length of their marriage.
“We’ve been married over 50 years,” Ann says. “We came here in 1968. My husband and I were the only blacks that were on the market at that time. They gave us a little corner down in a corner. I guess they thought we wouldn’t stay.”
No telling if those doubters were racist or simply ignorant – often synonymous, I’ve noticed – but the Hardys proved ’em wrong by flourishing as the market evolved, then moved a couple decades back into the eye-pleasing, tidy sheds of agrarian urban renewal.
Loading day at the Nashville Farmers’ Market.
(The Ledger/Tim Ghianni)
This late-winter flight of some market veterans comes because of new rules that call for all produce to be sold by the growers. No second-hand fruit allowed.
Market Executive Director Tasha Kennard explains: “We needed to do a better job of laying out the expectations of the type of merchants we would have doing business … In the past it was ‘anything goes,’ you may be reselling from a produce auction, a warehouse or another farmer.”
The changing rules will leave some empty spots. She says 40 percent of the produce space last summer was occupied by resellers who must adapt or depart.
“We want to move the market forward as a farmers’ market that supports the producer community and is the best possible marketplace for their farms to thrive,” Kennard says.
It’s part of a major overhaul of the market and its goods and services that also includes new indoor space for farmers and for food artisans to peddle their wares, from produce to protein, dairy to donuts, jams to jellies.
Sure, it’s good to be putting the local farmers first, to make sure they are the ones growing and selling the produce. Just look at the success of the massive market down in Franklin, which follows that model.
Just like it was the right thing to do, at least cosmetically, when they built the more modern shelters years back, replacing the old circle-the-wagons fleet of pickups, trailers and booths from which folks sold everything from statues of the pope’s namesake to Alabama watermelons and Texas tomatoes.
That old market “was in looking distance to where you are now,” says Ann, gazing down Harrison Street from the almost-empty shed where her market career winds down.
The market where she and Charles first occupied a corner in a corner was a decrepit gypsy village, roughly on this same parcel. It was ragged, but somehow right, the way I like Nashville. And life.
It was a boisterous and aromatic midway where tomatoes and kale (before it became so damned trendy) were offered up to folks who strolled or clatter-clunked cars through.
That battered old market, just off what was then known as Eighth Avenue North, was a great place for me to go when I was an editor at the late, lamented Nashville Banner, out looking for everyday people for my weekly “Real Life” column.
More often than not I left not with a column topic, but with tomatoes or strawberries. Sometimes out of season, by the way.
Then came the upgrade to Bicentennial Mall’s big, matching sheds, a more orderly locale to sell wares. After that move, the regular vendors were allowed to continue selling the produce they grew or bought from their competitors, grocery warehouses and auctions.
For Ann, the new all-grower rules mean this likely is her long farewell to the Nashville Farmers’ Market.
“The ruling is just rigid and totally different,” she says. “For the older person it is hard to do changes.”
While she talks of “older people,” she won’t tell her own age, only, “I’m older than I was last year, and I hope a little wiser, too.”
“Most of what we sold was from farmers. But I did not get everything from farmers, because the customers wanted more things than what was growing here.
“Since we are such a melting pot of culture here (in Nashville), a lot of the items come into play that we don’t grow here. Pineapples. Avocadoes. Mangoes. And if anyone can tell me where they grow bananas around here, I’d like to know.” Bittersweet laughter echoes in the empty shed.
“The Hispanic culture uses a lot of products that we hadn’t formerly held onto here,” Ann says. “Not just the avocadoes, but the herbs and onions that we hadn’t heard of before.’’
Being a businesswoman, she was happy to purchase those items elsewhere and put them for resale among some of your more popular gourds and the like that – until this blustery North Nashville day – filled, pallets and bushel baskets throughout the shed.
“It would be good if they didn’t have rules so rigid that you cannot do business in a businesslike manner,” she says. “I did stay here and I did hold the standard I had for being there: Always trying to do what was productive and possible and also selling a good product. Which I did.”
Clouds grow thicker and a cold north wind dances uninhibited through the ghost-town shed off Rosa Parks, where the market’s authentic homegrown theme will be unveiled in a month or so, after some repairs and generally tidying up.
“I don’t have a problem with progress,” Ann says. “There must be a growth process and things do change. But they changed the market with no regards for the anchor businesses that have been here all these years. …Basically, the land has become so valuable that they don’t really care.”
She may “cheat” a bit on her farewell by returning later in the spring to sell only items she grows.
Tasha, the executive director, has been working with the Hardys, with anyone who is forced to leave because of the ban on resellers.
Some are adapting, following the new mandates, in order to stay. If farmers cannot adapt, Tasha has been helping them find other locations.
Even though she’s confident this is the right move, Tasha admits, “It was hard to walk through (at February’s end) and know there were some faces we aren’t going to see at the market again. We’re real people. It was just as hard on us as it was to them.”
Even if they do return for a small booth and a short time, Ann and Charles Hardy have a different vision for their future.
“We’re not ready to give up yet,” she says, noting her produce – including the Latino-centric wares she buys for her clientele ¬– is bound for a five-acre plot on Nolensville Road, next to the Walmart Superstore.
“It is where the road goes from two lanes to four or from four lanes to two,” she says, describing the parcel near the Williamson County line.
“I lived out there when I was a little girl,” she says, adding she’ll know in three months if she’s got the zoning go-ahead to set up shop – avocadoes, rare onions, pineapples and all – on the land of her rural youth.
“We don’t live there now,” she says. “I don’t want to zone it all into commercialism. I only want to use the frontage, and they’ll have to see what we can do and when we can do it.’
One thing that has her lamenting her departure is the fact her son, Gerald, who had meningitis and is in a wheelchair now, “was in the produce business with us.”
Doctors say he may rise from that wheelchair eventually. “It would be such an incentive for him,” she says of the idea of getting him back into the tomato, mango and banana business. She and Charles, she says, “Are age-able,” after all. Of course he still may, even in a new and unfamiliar location.
She also has a special-needs granddaughter who comes to the market and works with her after school. It’s good for both Grandma and the 18-year-old.
Removing the older vendors and their ways to make way for growers will no doubt work in a gentrifying city where new and updated homes stand on property for which many blue-collar and/or darker-skinned individuals can no longer afford to pay property taxes or rent. Pain measures progress.
Johnny Howell of Howell Farms in Bellevue says he’s going to have to lay off seven people once his market operation closes. One man has worked the market for him for 30 years.
Across the pavilion from the Hardys, he and his crew rush to get everything packed up.
“Don’t have time to talk now,” says one of the workmen. “We’re trying to get loaded up and out of here.”
Johnny, 35, helps that man level out pallets in the back of one of two panel trucks he’s loading and then shakes his head. “I don’t know where we’re headed next. We’ve been out here 70 years.”
His grandfather is still in charge of the farm and the produce. And his dad (“we’re all Johnnys”) also works at the farm.
While he’s sad to leave the market, he is sadder for his grandfather. “It’s hard to see him having to leave something his daddy did around the old courthouse (long-ago home of the market).”
Market boss Tasha says Howell has an application to return to the “new” market. Perhaps he will.
“I doubt we’ll come back,” he says. “We gotta sell other peoples’ stuff, too. We farm 300 acres. We don’t have time to raise much but tomatoes. We do grow peppers, squash and a few beans, but we’re known for raising tomato plants.
“I put in 100,000 tomato plants. I’m the fourth generation that has raised tomato plants on that farm. It’s a family deal. Our whole family makes a living off that farm.”
“People want variety out there at the market.”
Howell’s says people want more than the lonely turnip greens of winter. They expect their vendors to have sweet tomatoes and crisp apples and tangy oranges from Florida and Texas.
“Are you gonna come to the Farmers’ Market just to get tomatoes and stuff that’s locally grown or are you going to the grocery store for one-stop shopping? The Farmers’ Market used to be that one stop,” Howell says.
“I guess we’re going to outsource. We’re going to do more of the satellite markets,” the one-day affairs that spring up in parks and at roadsides, far from this complex near the new Sounds diamond and nearly within eyeshot of the mayor’s proposed portable flood wall. Nashville’s 10-digit phone number future is arriving.
“I just feel bad for the people that used to come to Farmers’ Market,” Johnny says. “I grew up on that market.
“I can remember being out there sitting on a banana box when my Granny and my Pawpaw were working.”