As Farmers Market turns 15, director aims for ‘connected’ community

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The Williamsburg Farmers Market, one of three regular markets throughout the Historic Triangle (Photo courtesy of the Williamsburg Farmers Market)
The Williamsburg Farmers Market, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2017, will reopen next month. (Photo courtesy of the Williamsburg Farmers Market)

Before Tracy Herner, manager and executive director of Williamsburg Farmers Market, started working for the market, she actually had never been to one.

“In Newport News, there weren’t any farmers markets near where I lived, so I had no idea what to expect,” she said.

Herner started out with the market as a part-time assistant in 2011 and was promoted to manager two years later.

As manager, she oversees all the planning for the Williamsburg Farmers Market, which operates 43 weeks a year on Saturday mornings in Merchants Square. The market will reopen for the season on March 4. This year, the farmers market is celebrating its 15th anniversary.

(Courtesy Tracy Herner)
(Courtesy Tracy Herner)

Roughly 40 vendors set up shop weekly, selling fresh, seasonal produce and other products such as meats, soaps, coffee, honey, herbs, plants and flowers, pickles, breads and jams, and pies, cupcakes, and other prepared foods.

In addition to the farm stands, each market also features live music, cooking demonstrations from local chefs and other activities. Williamsburg-James City County’s School Division’s School Health Initiative Program (SHIP) also sponsors two children’s days at the market with special events geared toward promoting a healthy lifestyle.

“It’s amazing just how much the farmers market truly impacts the community,” Herner said. “We have 47 different varieties of fruits and vegetables at the farmers market. The farmers work so hard, and the market offers them the best chance to be successful business owners. I have a greater appreciation for farmers and small business people in general since working here. They are some of the most generous, compassionate people I know.”

Four local farms—KelRae Farm in Toano, MillFarm Christmas Tree and Berry Farm on Fenton Mill Road, Tasha’s Own Goat’s Milk Soap on Centerville Road and Gifts of Nature Specialty Plants in York County—can frequently be found at the market, while most of the other farmers are from the eastern part of Virginia.

The farmers market has a bison vendor from the Northern Neck and an apple vendor from Nelson County. Roughly ten farmers have been with the market since it first began in 2002. Herner is working to bring in a new vendor this year from Richmond who sells kombucha, a fermented tea. She would also like to bring on a new asparagus farmer, as well as farmers who sell ginger and turmeric.

“Kombucha is a new product we haven’t seen at the market before, so we are excited,” Herner said. “Our goal is to have our prepared food vendors’ ingredients eighty percent locally-sourced.”

To commemorate the market’s 15th anniversary, a series of community forums will be held at The Stryker Center throughout the year. The first forum, scheduled for March 16, will focus on local and mass distribution of food, organics, GMOs, heirloom seeds and crops, and biodiversity.

The anniversary milestone is a chance “to look back and appreciate all the hard work that has gone into making the Williamsburg Farmers Market one of the best markets in the country,” Herner said.

Herner is also a member of the Virginia Farmers Market Association, which supports farmers markets through education initiatives and provides opportunities for networking and collaboration. There are more than 250 farmers markets throughout the commonwealth.

 (Photo courtesy of the Williamsburg Farmers Market)
(Photo courtesy of the Williamsburg Farmers Market)

“It’s very satisfying working with other people who do what I do,” she said.

Herner also works with local chefs from restaurants affiliated with the Williamsburg Area Restaurant Association (WARA), who can be found under the chef’s demo tent each week.

“Chefs want to use high quality local ingredients,” she said. “They get excited about it. It’s rewarding working with such amazing people, the vendors, the chefs, the volunteers, and others in the community. It’s humbling working with people who are so supportive.”

One of Herner’s hopes is to expand the children’s programming to include cooking. From Memorial Day until Labor Day, the market has the Power of Produce Club designed for children two to 12 years of age.

“I have two kids, and I know if my kids help me cook, they are more likely to eat what I cook,” she said.

In addition, Herner would like to spread awareness for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which can be used at the market. She wants more people to have access to fresh local food and be able to enjoy the market.

“I want to make it meaningful,” she said. “When you come to the market, I want you to feel the magic. I want you to feel connected, happy, hungry. I want you to feel something.”

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