More often than not we imagine our area farmers to be hard working, friendly enigmas.
We understand that they’re up before the sun, tilling and planting and tending to the in-season delicacies we find on the menus of the finest local establishments.
We assume they eat tomatoes off the vine and ramps straight from the soil, subsisting off the land like their mothers before them, and their mothers before them.
They’re the kind of people we know exist, with their dirt-rimmed cuticles and faded flannel coveralls, though we aren’t sure if we’ve actually ever seen one before.
Except, maybe, at the farmers market.
This year, one of the area’s biggest markets, formerly known as South of the James and located in Forest Hill Park, changed its name, appropriately, to RVA Big Market and moved its Saturday morning market to a new home in Bryan Park, though it will still operate a Thursday night market at the Forest Hill location.
In addition to RVA Big Market, there are more than a half-dozen farmers markets in the greater Richmond region now in full swing, including the midsized Farmers Market @ St. Stephens. For more than a decade, this market has been quietly operating year-round at 6000 Grove Ave., boasting a variety of vendors who come for the sense of community and then return, season after season, every Saturday morning.
Chef Mela Jones has been frequenting the stall of F.J. Medina & Sons Farm for years now.
“She tolerates when I email her on a Friday night and say, ‘Hey, I need 30 pounds of asparagus,” Jones says. “She never says no, I mean most people will give her more advance notice.”
Karla Medina has been a mainstay at the Farmers Market @ St. Stephens for “eight-10 years.” Medina’s husband Francisco grew up farming, and when his father passed away in 2006 the Medina family farm was divided among the brothers.
“I just learned from him,” Medina says. “He has the green thumb and the knowledge – and it changes every year. He keeps track of everything in his own calendars from past planting seasons, noting how the weather changes, what’s growing.”
Karla and Francisco, along with help from their two sons and a handful of full- and part-time workers, operate 35 acres in Montross, Va., growing things as varied as rainbow chard and oregano.
Every Wednesday through Sunday from April to November, Medina is on the road, setting up the family’s farm stand at 10 markets around the state, from Annandale to Charlottesville to Richmond.
“This is my favorite market,” Medina says. “It has a little bit of everything. People know you by your name, they don’t just come and shop at your stand. And they know your produce, they can tell what comes from which vendor.”
The four-hour market is winding down and vendors are taking a breath after a fairly bustling Saturday. People call out to Jones and Medina as they leave, proudly holding up bags of Medina farms produce.
We’re perched on planks of wood balanced on plastic crates as Jones muses over how she’ll prepare the kohlrabi she just purchased. “I don’t think I’ve ever cooked with it,” she says. “Maybe I’ll do a braise or a gratin, you know, just to introduce people to that.”
Medina nods vigorously: “That’s what the farmers market is for!” This shared curiosity drives both Jones and Medina, kindred spirits connecting over something as simple as cabbage.
“When you cook fresh from local farms, the food just tastes better,” Medina says. “And Mela’s food is amazing, I’m so happy she’s able to use my produce as ingredients, like in her salads.”
Jones’ Leek & Thistle stand is a 100 feet or so from Medina’s; her husband mans the stall as we chat, selling Mela’s homemade Medina Farms’ asparagus pistachio pesto, chipotle pepita salsa, roasted carrot and white bean dip, plus soups, main courses and vegan entrees.
On market days Medina says she’s usually up around 3:30 a.m. to get the truck running and the greens loaded fresh in the back.
“We try to bring produce as fresh as we can, if you load them up at night it can get hot in the boxes,” Medina says. “It’s a little more work, but it makes a difference.”
The year-round Farmers Market @ St. Stephens typically plays host to about 40 vendors in the summer and 25 vendors from October through April.
“We don’t have an exact radius for where people come from, but the closer the better,” market manager Anna Jones says. “The majority of our vendors sell Virginia products that they produce themselves.”
Anna explains that the market is part of the food ministry at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, providing parishioners and the larger community with “a way to get local food and support local vendors, which supports the local economy.”
At the end of each market, volunteers collect donations from vendors, which are then used at the food pantry on Monday. “That’s our main source of fresh produce for the pantry,” Anna says.
Although she hails from across the pond, chef Jones has a deep appreciation for the Old Dominion’s fruits de terre, and for the market’s championing of all things local.
“My family lived all around the world, and even though my mom and dad were from a small town we were exposed to so many kinds of food,” Jones says. “When we moved back to Great Britain we had a waffle iron, which my friends thought was exotic.”
Jones’ résumé includes working as a private chef for an Australian family and catering royal parties for the likes of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, “I think Harry and William were 3 and 5,” she says.
Jones has lived in Richmond since 1999 and started her own catering company, Truly Scrumptious, in 2007. She’s worked out of the kitchen at Bon Air United Methodist Church for more than a decade, and will soon permanently move her operations, now rebranded as Leek & Thistle, into the old Nota Bene Space at 2110 E. Main St.
“I’m not sure why I ever named my business Truly Scrumptious,” Jones says. “My family is from Wales, I grew up in Scotland, so those places are both very close to my heart. Leek & Thistle, I don’t know, it just kind of popped out. I like that I can reference my family, they’re all in the U.K., so I like to be able to tell people that story.”
Just as the 2020 market season was gearing up last spring, the Farmers Market @ St. Stephens shut down – for one week. Then it was back up and running, with new safety protocols in place.
“They figured it out and have been fantastic,” Jones says.
As big-box stores ran out of fresh produce and pantry staples during the early days of the pandemic, farmers markets, operating on small margins and with no middle men, were able to bounce back and reorganize.
“I talked with several other farmers market managers to see what they were doing, I did a lot of reading on the CDC site and got information from the Virginia Department of Health,” Anna says.
It makes sense, this deeply rooted resiliency, this ability to switch operations on a dime. Markets and their farmers are accustomed to change, to relentless letdowns and mercurial weather patterns. The pandemic put the agricultural industry through the wringer, sure, but they’ve been through the wringer time and again.
And they’ll keep going, no matter what external forces are at play.
“We just added 5 acres to the farm in this beautiful area,” Medina says. “It’s in George Washington’s birthplace and it’s just peaceful. The soil – it’s so rich, I can just picture it now.”
Look for Leek & Thistle to open its first storefront in late spring or early summer at 2112 E. Main St. Grab heat-and-eat meals, plus sandwiches, salads and a selection of wine and beer. Jones is also at St. Stephens every Saturday; check her Instagram for up-to-date menus.