Area produce featured as St. Mary Oak Ridge again hosts Winter Farmers Market
By Dan McWilliams
Photography by Bill Brewer
St. Mary Parish and School in Oak Ridge are providing both a valuable opportunity for farmers and good food for the community by hosting the second annual Winter Farmers Market.
The market is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays from December through February (closed Dec. 23 and 30) in the gym at St. Mary School.
About 50 vendors take part in the market overall, with about 25 to 35 coming per week, selling locally raised produce, free range eggs, meat, artisan breads, local honey, and more.
St. Mary pastor Father Brent Shelton said the market is more than just a place for buying and selling.
“The weekly winter market doesn’t just serve the buying and selling needs of participants, it also brings a diversity of people together in a way that fosters community-building and the development of friendships among residents who might otherwise remain strangers,” he said.
“There is no explicit promotion of our Catholic faith during the market, but by hosting it, we are able to show that Catholics are a welcoming community of believers.”
The alternative to the St. Mary Winter Farmers Market was an outdoor event.
“It was difficult for the vendors to be in the cold, open space of Jackson Square,” said Sister Marie Blanchette, OP, principal of St. Mary School. “I’m sure that precluded families from coming, as they didn’t want their children outside in the cold.”
Rebecca Williams, market director for Grow Oak Ridge, is the director of the St. Mary Farmers Market.
“I decided to start the market because I know many of the farmers were selling outside in the cold in the Jackson Square parking lot,” she said. “I would go there to shop. I am a loyal summer farmers market shopper, too. So is Becky Daigle, who is a member of St. Mary’s. One day, she heard me saying, ‘We could start a winter indoor market, if we only had a church gym. …’ She said, ‘Oh, my church would do that,’ and that began the ball rolling. St. Mary’s has been a very gracious host.”
Ms. Williams started Grow Oak Ridge in spring 2016 and opened the first St. Mary’s Winter Farmers Market last December.
“The mission of Grow Oak Ridge is to be a catalyst for community health, an incubator for local businesses, and an advocate for the local food system,” she said. “Also, I hope the Winter Farmers Market is a community gathering spot for Oak Ridgers. We have a free weekly Kids Club, and we have an indoor eating area, so people can stay for lunch with one of our food trucks.”
The Farmers Market “gives farmers a warm place to sell their winter products,” Ms. Williams said. “This is very important income for full-time farmers. One farmer told me that they previously had to go into debt to buy spring seed, but last year was the first year they had winter income and therefore did not have to go into debt. It is very difficult to make a living farming.”
Father Shelton called his parish and school a “perfect match” to host the market.
“The Oak Ridge Farmers Market, sponsored by the East Tennessee Farmers Association, has been a local source for fresh produce for over 40 years now, with a focus on the summer months and located outdoors in the town square,” Father Shelton said. “A couple of years ago, the association began searching for indoor facilities that could host a winter version of the farmers’ market. St. Mary Church is centrally located, thanks to both the initiative of Father Francis McRedmond in 1948 and to the advanced preparation of parishioners who saved money for a future church even before the Atomic Energy Commission allowed land ownership in Oak Ridge.
“Our full-sized gymnasium was added 20 years ago by parishioners under the leadership of Father Michael Woods, and it provides a perfectly sized indoor facility for the weekly event. So, our location and our facilities make St. Mary’s the perfect match for the growth of a winter farmers market in Oak Ridge.”
St. Mary Parish “has been incredibly gracious about the market. They have never asked for anything,” Ms. Williams said.
The parish benefits from the Farmers Market.
“Grow Oak Ridge gives 10 percent of the vendor fees to St. Mary’s Parish,” Sister Marie Blanchette said. “Half of that money goes toward paying for the utilities used, and the other half goes to the St. Mary’s Parish food pantry.”
New to the Farmers Market this year are a Fresh Savings Program, where customers can get their SNAP (food stamp) dollars doubled at the welcome desk, up to $20, for fresh fruits and vegetables in the market; Christmas activities at the market for a free Kids Club on Dec. 9, sponsored by St. Mary School; Kira’s Kids Dairy, which will be selling cheese from 100 percent goat’s milk; and ripe red tomatoes from new greenhouse vendor Spring Oak Farm.
Visitors to the market can enter to win $20 in market cash on opening day by signing up for market emails at www.GrowOakRidge.org. Businesses can sponsor the Kids Club or the market and have a booth for a week as well. Apply online at growoakridge.org/become-a-vendor/ sponsor-the-market/.
Deacon Gary Sega of St. Mary said the parish benefits in another way from the market.
“It draws in many from the community that are not members of the parish,” he said. “It’s always our hope that some of these folks may consider joining our church and, if they have school-aged children, they may decide to enroll them in our excellent school.”
The market “does build up a community spirit,” Deacon Sega said. “I have gotten positive feedback from both members of our parish and others outside the parish, that they really enjoy having the market open in the winter, and they like the idea of supporting local farmers and artisans.”
Father Shelton said, “There are people who come to St. Mary’s for the market who would otherwise never have any reason to be here. We are very grateful for this opportunity to welcome them.”