Are you longing for homegrown tomatoes and vegetables fresh from a garden like your grandparents once grew? It won’t be long until the Oxford Community Market is open again for business.
Market Director Betsy Chapman, sitting in her office at the community office space The Edison, is working to bring the open-air farmer’s market back to the Old Armory Pavilion April through December.
Chapman seems like a true Lafayette County local, but she moved here with her daughter in 2005 from Arizona. “Oxford is our adopted hometown,” she says, “I saw it as a healthy and wholesome place to raise a child, and it’s proven to be the best parenting decision I’ve ever made.”
Before she worked at the market, Chapman was one of the two employees at Yokna Bottoms Farm. She was in charge of growing food and selling it at the market, which was called Oxford City Market until management changed hands.
She said Owner Doug Davis “really took a chance on me when he hired me. My time working there definitely took me to where I am today and was a great foundation for my line of work.”
Her time at the farm paid off. She was hired by Oxford City Market in November of 2014 to help market the operation. In October of 2016, the market officially became an independent non-profit, and Chapman was promoted to director.
She planned for the first new season and said it was “one of the best we’ve had in a while.” She said the inaugural season, which ran from April to December of 2017, showcased new and old faithful vendors, produced more food than ever before, and the quality of the produce improved as well. Around 3,000 pounds of fresh food was donated to the Oxford Food Pantry during the season.
“We had so much food during the summer that we decided to create a second drop-off location for extra produce at Canterbury Crest Housing, which provides living arrangements for senior citizens,” Chapman said.
Since Chapman became market director, she’s added many things, although she said she didn’t have to make big changes. “The previous market director did a good job, and we kept the mission the same – to make healthy, local food easily accessible to the community.”
The market is a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participant, which is the government-run program also known as SNAP. People can use food stamps at the market, which gives $10 of SNAP benefits as an incentive. It is sponsored by the local Baptist Hospital, United Way and Move Up Mississippi.
Marilyn Rhea Cheeseman, head of Bottle Tree Poultry Farm in Water Valley, is also a participant of the Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
“As a FMNP participating farmer, I can accept checks at my stall, which are mostly used by senior citizens,” she said. Although they are only allowed to purchase produce and not eggs, the Mississippi Farmers Market Nutrition program promotes a healthy lifestyle and encourages senior citizens to visit the market. The program begins in June and ends in November.
Throughout the season, Chapman implemented original ideas she will use again this year. “Every week, we had something special,” she said. “From live music, to kids’ activities and cooking demonstrations, and our weekly fresh food drive. I’m working on incorporating these again this year.”
She said last season was strong for Oxford Community Market. “Everybody had great sales, good customers, and the community really got behind it,” she said. “I felt a lot of spirit from our local community, and we thrived.”
The market is also a place that helps launch small businesses. Most of the original vendors are still there, but Chapman said there is always room for new projects. A few businesses that began at the market have expanded and gained popularity. Cotton’s Café and Heartbreak Coffee are a couple. The latter now has a storefront in Water Valley.
Chicory Market is a new farmer’s market-style grocery that recently opened over the summer. Chapman believes it is great to have a grocery store that sells fresh and healthy food. Chicory Market offers a good variety of produce with a fair amount locally sourced. However, Chapman does not consider them a competitor.
“We are allies in building the local food economy, and our biggest competitor is chain grocery stores,” she said. “For the farmer’s market, we support the idea of both the value of buying directly from the producer, with access to questions about the growing process, and establishing the trust and integrity between the buyer and the grower.” She believes there is always a place for farmer’s markets.
Although it’s currently the market’s off season, Chapman said this is when she is busiest and planning all the aspects of each week. Grant writing is due now, and recruiting and training new vendors.
“Planning is so important in the process of keeping the market successful,” she said. Today, she spent a few hours pricing out supplies, like eco-friendly cups and plates. “It’s the little details that make all the difference.”
There are always local groups and organizations that partner with the market, such as the University of Mississippi’s Rebel Well and the public library. Chapman speaks to them, exchanging ideas, inviting any group in the community to participate.
One marketing idea that helped the market’s visibility was social media. “Cross-posting and sharing brought more business than ever before,” she said. Chapman creates all promotional materials, such as brochures and posters. She expects to complete planning by the end of this month and have promotional material ready during the second week of March.
“There are always last-minute events, but it is important to have the foundation ready for the beginning of the season,” she said. “I’m currently securing sponsors and events, but we’re always accepting new vendors.”
The official date for the grand opening has not been announced yet, but Chapman said it will be sometime in April. Be on the lookout for better weather and signs posted around town that will bring you to the market.