• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Farmers' market offers homegrown produce, more

JOHN WILHOIT sells homegrown vegetables from Thistle's End Farm at the Woodford County Farmers Market. On Monday morning, Wilhoit held a watermelon picked from his vegetable garden. His and Sue Churchill's family farm was one of two stops on this year's Woodford County Farm Tour. (Photo by Bob Vlach)

The growers belonging to the Woodford County Farmers' Market are an eclectic mix. Some have backyard gardens while others grow most anything imaginable on small family farms. Jesse Dahl fits into the latter category. The father of three young children has grown a variety of crops on his family's five-acre farm near the Jack Jouett House for nearly five years, but describes his first year as "a giant failure. We didn't fence (our crops) off so the deer ate everything, the turkeys ate everything and rabbits . so there wasn't anything left for the farmers' market." Having learned from his first-season mistakes, Dahl joined the Woodford County Farmers' Market - now serving as its vice president - and has "been growing like crazy ever since." In addition to growing about 40 different types of vegetables this summer, Dahl says he has blackberries and strawberries - and eventually wants to grow more tree fruits and diversify his farming operation. Woodford County Farmers' Market president Connie Sandrock doesn't own a farm so she contributes mostly baked goods, but also "some really nice carrots." Other vendors also fill niches at the farmers' market. Longtime vendor Jim Boggs uses his woodworking skills to fashion stools and other furniture as he downsizes his farming operation. With Boggs, Don McCoun and other older farmers becoming less active in the farmers' market, Woodford County's Extension agent for horticulture Faye Kuosman says, "It's really great to get new people, and young people like Jesse . coming into the market." As horticulturist at the University of Kentucky's Arboretum botanical garden, Dahl deals with plants in his work life and was familiar with local farmers' markets, too. So joining the Woodford County Farmers' Market was something he had wanted to try for a while. Most of the money he earns at the farmers' market has gone right back into his farm as he works toward diversifying his operation to include sheep, chicken, pork, and possibly beef someday. Once reinvestments for fencing and other on-farm improvements are finished in five or six years, Dahl says most of what he earns at the farmers' market will turn into profit. Value-added products such as jams and jellies are becoming popular among growers like Dahl. He and his family turned 20 quarts of blackberries, with a value of $100, into 50 half pints of jam, with a $300 value. Through his experiences at the farmers' market, Dahl says a crop can grow really well in Woodford County, but does not sell well here. He cites yellow tomatoes as one example. "It doesn't matter how beautiful ... I will sell out of the reds. I will sell out of the green tomatoes, but the yellow ones all sit there," says Dahl. "So I don't grow yellow tomatoes any more because I can't sell them." Sampling days at the Woodford County Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings are one way to get people to try different or unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, says Kuosman. Woodford County's Extension agent for horticulture says tomatoes are sometimes not as red as other varieties because they are bred for flavor "so they're uglier, but they actually taste better." Midway resident Adele Dickerson says more people are choosing to buy fresh produce at a local farmers' market rather than a grocery store, because they know where the fruits and vegetables are being grown and who's growing them. "I'm not going to bring something to the market that I wouldn't eat myself," says Dahl. "If it's not up to the quality I would eat it . it doesn't come to the market." Dickerson says produce grown by local farmers is tastier and more nutritious than fruits and vegetables trucked in from faraway places like California. The lettuce that she buys from one Woodford County Farmers' Market producer - Bluegrass Aquaponics on Old Frankfort Pike - is so flavorful and tender that "usually, when I make a salad now I don't put any dressing on it," says Dickerson. Woodford County Farmers' Market hours are Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon at the Woodford County Courthouse square in downtown Versailles; Wednesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. at the parking lot at Darlin' Jean's in downtown Midway; and Mondays from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Versailles Presbyterian Church parking lot. "Our customer traffic is just not what I think it should be," says Sandrock. She says people who choose to shop at a grocery store would be surprised by the variety of choices available at the Woodford County Farmers' Market. "It definitely tastes much better than what you're going to get at the supermarket, but people still want (out-of-season fruits and vegetables) even if they don't taste as good as ours," says Sandrock. If plans to construct a pavilion in downtown Versailles come to fruition, the Woodford County Farmers' Market will have a permanent location in the city parking lot on Rose Hill. "It's something the market's always wanted," says Kuosman. She says operating a market in a permanent location will reduce confusion, and also provide a safer environment for vendors and customers alike. "In other small communities where they've put up pavilions," says Kuosman, "they saw a huge increase in vendors and customers."

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