Farmers First

Birthday present for Memphis Farmers Market: plans for more space

By Don Wade

After all these years – 27 weeks of Saturdays for a decade – Jill Forrester calls it a “nice routine.” And by that she means she and husband Keith getting up at 3 a.m., loading their produce, herbs and flowers, and driving to the Memphis Farmers Market downtown.

“We were the first farmers to sign up,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. It’s blowing my mind.”

Each Saturday, the Memphis Farmers Market brings more than 2,000 shoppers to Downtown Memphis to peruse local produce and other foods as well as local plants, arts and crafts. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Allison Cook is the executive director of Memphis Farmers Market. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Each Saturday, the Memphis Farmers Market brings more than 2,000 shoppers to Downtown Memphis to peruse local produce and other foods as well as local plants, arts and crafts. (Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The start of the Memphis Farmers Market created opportunity for the Forresters; they did so well on those Saturday mornings that they were able to transition from teaching jobs to full-time farming. Now they operate Whitton Farms, located in Arkansas between Memphis and Jonesboro.

“The farmers market gave us an opportunity to pursue our dream of working alongside each other on a daily basis,” Jill said.

So there’s one story. Several years ago, the Downtown Memphis Commission calculated the nonprofit Memphis Farmers Market had an annual economic impact of $4.5 million.

National research has shown that farmers markets typically increase education about nutrition and safe-food preparation; bridge cultural and economic divides between urban and rural citizens; and increase the amount of fruits and vegetables people eat.

According to the USDA, volunteers manage more than 60 percent of farmers markets nationally. Allison Cook is MFM’s executive director, but she depends on volunteers to run the market, which is open from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays through Nov. 21 this year. A one-day holiday market is slated for Dec. 12.

On average, MFM has around 70 vendors onsite and four food trucks. It’s located at the MATA bus terminal, in the pavilion, at the corner of G.E. Patterson and South Front Street.

But the $55 million redevelopment of Central Station project will bring change and expanded opportunity for MFM; plans call for a market plaza with a relocated Memphis Farmers Market along Front Street.

When the Central Station plans were first announced in March, project partner Archie Willis of Community Capital said the farmers market would likely transition to the larger market square concept during its off season. When that transition occurs will depend specifically on the timing of funding for infrastructure and other civic improvements – the larger market square being the largest of those improvements.

“We love our pavilion. It’s worked great,” Cook said. “But we’re tapped out for space.”

In fact, Cook says she has a waiting list for vendors.

“Our goal is to have 60 to 65 percent farmers,” she said. “And farmers get first bidding on space.”

Besides locally grown produce and other food items, MFM features locally produced kitchen and garden arts and crafts from the region. MFM is a producer-only market and does not allow resale of any items.

Farmers markets sometimes get criticized for being more expensive than the grocery store, but Cook and Forrester say that’s not necessarily true – especially when buying produce in season.

“Prices can end up being better,” Forrester said. “You can meet and talk with the farmers. If you need a large quantity of peaches, they can get you a better deal on the spot. And there’s a reason why strawberries in May are better than any other time, sweeter than any other strawberries you find.”

Attendance averages 2,000-2,500 per Saturday, Cook says, adding with a laugh that she is looking forward to the day, “We have a bigger, more functional space that isn’t a bus depot.”

Memphis Farmers Market will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with the MFM@TEN party on Sunday, Sept. 20, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Tennessee Brewery. Cost is $40 in advance and $50 at the door and the event will include food, live music, silent and live auctions, and beer and wine. The price is all-inclusive and more information can be found at

“It’s the last event at the brewery before it goes into renovation,” Cook said.

Saturday mornings at MFM are festive, too, with live music and kids activities more common than not. It is, as Forrester will tell you, more than worth a 3 a.m. wakeup: “In my opinion, that market is the heartbeat of Downtown on Saturday mornings.”