It all started when the farmers using metered spaces uptown created a conflict with licensed street vendors, former Athens Mayor Donald Barrett recalls on the market website. City officials encouraged the farmers to find another site, and Soil and Water Conservation District conservationist John Millar took the reins and became "the godfather of the market."
After various negotiations, the market opened using a small, unmarked paved area adjacent to tennis courts at the city's East State Street park, near wh ere the Athens Community Center now sits. The first market, held on a summer day in 1972, drew participation from three producers; on the following week, there were five. That summer, market participation peaked at a dozen vendors, mostly vegetable producers.
At the Athens Farmers Market this past Saturday, it proved difficult to count the number of producers and vendors participating in the parking lot of The Market on State mall, where the market relocated to in 1998. It still runs on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. year round, and the same times on Wednesdays except during the cold winter months. In recent years, during the winter, the Saturday market has run on Saturdays with some vendors moving inside the mall.
Neil Cherry of Cherry Orchards said he's been coming out to sell produce at the market for about 30 years.
Cherry Orchards in Morgan County was started by Neil's father in 1947, he said. It began with a small orchard and was expanded to where it is today. He said they sell at the orchard itself, as well as at the Athens Farmers Market and the one in Zanesville. At the market, Cherry was selling peaches, apples, apricots, plums, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash. He said in the fall he gets more into apple cider and pears.
Orchards are only one of a wide variety of types of stands set up at the market.
Jay Proffitt from Stewart, Ohio, said it's his 11th year at the market, but pointed out that his father was one of the original producers to participate in the market back in 1972.
Proffitt was selling all vegetable produce on Saturday but cited his ever-popular wineberries as being his specialty. He said that they can hardly be found anywhere else, and that he discovered the sweet berries walking in the woods one day.
"I found them in the wild and brought them in," he said. "They can be addictive."
One pretty recognizable street vendor from uptown Athens also sets up shop at the Farmers Market. Ali Baba's, known for its gyros on Union Street, also makes freshly squeezed lemonade, gyros and a variety of other treats at the market.
Josh Malfroid, running the Ali Baba's stand, said that the business was the first food vendor at the market.
"We make gyros; we make sandwiches," he said. "We have lamb, chicken, falafel. Hummus is popular."
But Ali Baba's isn't the only business at the market. Avalanche Pizza has a food vendor stand as well.
The deeper into the market one gets, the more the wide variety of stands becomes noticeable, from the tried and true to the more exploratory.
Some other stands at the market Saturday included Annabelle's Wholesome Baked Goods and Brazilian Confections; Sarah's Sweets (hand-dipped chocolates and homemade candies); King Family Farm; Pilgrim's Harvest whole grains; Shagbark Seed and Mill Company; Haulin' Hoof Farm; and Sassafras Farm.
A stand was even set up to provide information for farmers, including a canning basics workshop and literature on various insects that need to be kept in mind such as the bagworm, boxelder bug, the tomato horn worm and the multi-colored Asian lady beetle.
Another stand was set up to advocate for clean drinking water and to promote the anti-fracking movement.
Richard Jeffers, who has been at the Athens Farmers Market for two years, said he likes it a lot. Jeffers runs Sunny Meat Farm, on Fisher Road southwest of Athens. He said Sunny Meat Farm produces free-range eggs and all-natural beef, free of growth hormones and antibiotics.
"I certainly support the local (producers) and a self-sustaining community," he said. "I think it's nice that the people in the community support the market like they do."
Silver Bridge Coffee had a tent set up offering customers free samples of a wide variety of flavorful coffees.
Philip Walker said that Silver Bridge is a small-batch coffee roastery out of Gallipolis.
"We import our coffee beans from all over the world," he said.
On the Athens Farmers Market website, Dave Gutknecht points out that the location serves as a "wonderful venue for trade and conservation.
"It also serves as a kind of food business incubator for small producers attempting to start a new enterprise," he wrote. "Market producers and the surrounding community have an outstanding foundation upon which to build an even more expansive future. That future will be built on continuing the cooperative relations among market producers, along with strengthened support from area residents, the city of Athens, Ohio University, and the local business community."
Photo Caption: Neil Cherry of Cherry Orchards serves customers at the Athens Farmers Market
Over the past 30-plus years, the Athens Farmers Market has grown from a couple of local farmers selling produce from uptown metered-parking spaces to one of the most renowned outdoor markets in the state, receiving even national recognition.