Farmers markets bring people together. Over bushels of ripe tomatoes and juicy strawberries or loaves of freshly baked bread, customers and producers meet face to face, conversations begin, relationships commence.
It’s the human experience, and it’s something a few local churches view as right in line with their ministries.
Local farmers and producers — and hungry customers eager to sink their teeth into something fresh after a seemingly endless winter — are preparing for yet another busy market season. Most local farmers markets, if they’re not year-round markets, are scheduled to open within the next few weeks all across the area.
And among the list of market venues this year are four churches that dot the landscape both north and south of the river: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Woods United Methodist Church in Chesterfield County, Mechanicsville’s New Highland Baptist Church and Grace Episcopal Church in Goochland County.
For the managers who run these markets (both church members and outsiders alike), seeing the community on their doorsteps every week is uplifting.
Mike Sandridge is market manager at New Highland Baptist Church, which enters into its third market season May 21.
Sandridge is a church member, and when he’s not working his day job at the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, he and his wife oversee the nearly 50-year-old family honeybee operation, Sandridge and Sons Honey.
Several years ago, he said, New Highland was looking at ways to better use its building and the 10 acres on which it’s located.
Among other things, they decided to host a farmers market. Since Sandridge was familiar with the market scene — he’s been a vendor at the Ashland Farmers Market — he took on the role as market manager.
In short, he said, the goal was to build up the local community by providing a healthy way for neighbors to gather and connect with one another and the church on a regular basis. It’s also about modeling environmental stewardship by providing resources that offer local, sustainable food and goods.
They decided on a midweek option so they weren’t competing with weekend markets.
“It’s a service to the community, and it’s about serving people,” Sandridge said, adding that “that same sort of philosophy is in what we do” within the church’s ministry.
Kate Ruby is market manager for St. Stephen’s Farmers Market at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.
Going into its sixth season, Ruby said, the market has reached its capacity at 40 vendors and routinely sees upward of 800 people on any given weekend. That market is open now through Nov. 22.
She said parishioners visit the market to support their church, but there are just as many nonparishioners who’ve come to rely on the goods offered there.
Ruby said the church made a conscious decision to offer the market as part of its wellness ministry.
“It’s not their goal to promote the church,” Ruby said, but rather “it’s a commitment to their parishioners and the community at large to offer those foods” through the market.
Kate Roy Christian visits St. Stephen’s Farmers Market every Saturday, at 8 a.m. on the dot, particularly during the spring and summer when the market moves outdoors. (It’s held indoors during the fall and winter.)
A parishioner who happens to live across from the church, Christian said 75 percent of what she eats — from butter and honey to fresh vegetables and seafood — comes from the market. It’s the only market she frequents, she said.
“I’m into good food and healthy food,” said Christian, who added that she loves going to the market early in the morning not only to avoid the high temperatures during the summer, but also to snag the choicest pickings.
Occasionally, she said, she’ll buy something to eat for breakfast and sit at a table to eat and listen to the local musicians.
When she heard that her church was hosting a market, “I was absolutely thrilled,” she said, adding that the market “is just in line with the way (the church) feels about people.”
“It has a great community feel,” Christian said.