It’s not just the farmers who connect us to the land. It’s their stories, shared with generations, that show us the importance of sustainable farms in our own communities. It’s also the ones who tell their stories and unite producers and consumers, helping them learn about their food and the faces behind it.
Farmers Markets have become the place for these stories, a place for these connections.
Our local markets have grown to become dynamic experiences for the community and visitors alike. They’re driven by interesting leaders with stories of their own.
You’ve seen their faces when you visit the market – the butcher at Farmview, the chef at Athens Farmers Market, the veteran at Comfort Farms, the founder at Harmony Park Farmers Market, and the grill-master at Ripe Thing.
But have you heard their stories?
Ken McCord, the grill-master
It’s lunchtime and almost every parking space is full along the streets outside of Ripe Thing Market & Eatery. So are the tables. A group of deputies from Greene County fill the largest. Others tables stretch the length of the covered porch, winding among bushels of fresh produce that add pops of color to the shaded seating area.
And Ken McCord is right where he wants to be, behind the grill, at the front of the pack.
It’s Friday – fish tacos day – and he can’t grill the grouper fast enough.
But there’s no hurry. There are plenty of stories to tell, plenty of classic rock to hum along to. It’s everything McCord enjoys, and, it seems, the regulars do too.
His 42-year career in the restaurant and bar industry was flavored by great music, eventually laying down track to bring him to the Ripe Thing. The Navy sent him to Cordon Bleu school and he spent his time at officers’ clubs around California. A pretty sweet first gig, he says.
After getting out of the Navy, he discovered the Grateful Dead when Jerry Garcia came into the restaurant where he worked.
“I thought it was the coolest thing ever and I quit my job and followed the Grateful Dead for 17 shows, selling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for $1 each.”
He says he quickly realized he should probably grow up and actually make money to pay bills, so he moved to the Atlanta area before ending up as an executive chef in downtown Charleston, S.C. The coastal town is where legendary singer/songwriter Leon Russell found him and invited him to go on the road with him as his personal chef. “I spent a few years on the road with Leon and thoroughly enjoyed it,” says McCord.
A few years ago, he felt it was time to retire. His children and grandchildren live in Cumming, so he chose Lake Oconee four years ago to be close to them.
“This little produce spot kept calling me,” he says. He kept stopping by to pick up produce, and even took a part-time job there because he didn’t know a soul around. “Finally, I said, ‘I can do something with this. We could have a lot of fun.’”
So two years ago, he bought in and partnered with owner Robert Hoch. He crafted a menu and set up his grill. Now, he knows everyone in town, and they know his lunch specials by heart.
“I’m glad to be part of this community and part of its growth,” he says. “We’re just trying to bring something fresh and new to Greensboro. It’s a fun gig.”
Jon Jackson, the veteran
U.S. Army Ranger Ret. Jon Jackson served in six deployments to combat zones. When he came home, so did the war, and he soon realized he had one last mission left: to give veterans the help he himself was unable to find after returning from war.
“I am a veteran with invisible wounds, living with PTSD and traumatic brain injury sustained in combat. I have seen first-hand how the war has been brought back from the battlefields into our homes. I have witnessed the devastating effects of PTSD left untreated which has cause many of my brothers in arms to lose everything they have worked hard for,” says Jackson. “I see a lot of organizations with good intentions, but at the end of the day, many of these programs are only providing a Band-Aid to the real issue.”
He and his brothers needed purpose. They needed hard work and structured routines. They needed healing.
Three years ago he opened Comfort Farms, a 20-acre haven in Milledgeville named in honor of Army Ranger Captain Kyle A. Comfort, who died in May 2012 during an insurgent attack in Afghanistan, and began putting displaced veterans to work. It became the first ever Acute Veterans Crisis Agriculture center in the nation, a place for veterans to stay, regain strength, and re-boot for everyday life and a fulfilling future. It was Agri-therapy. It was dignity restored.
Together they worked toward the goal of providing healthy, sustainable food that is accessible to everyone. The community gave its full support to its farmers market and each year it continues to grow.
Today, top chefs at regional restaurants clamber for the farm’s heritage pork, lamb, rabbits, eggs, and heirloom vegetables. But the farm still puts its community first at its twice-monthly farmers market and welcomes them to various educational events throughout the year. The next market is held May 18.
And, with its expanded operations, you can now get meat from the farm delivered to your door through its new Provision Box program. This monthly subscription includes different types of meat from the farm. Proceeds from this program will go toward plans to build an Agro-Culinary Academy at Comfort Farms to give veterans a basis for a new career and help grow more farmers in Georgia to meet the growing demand for sustainable food production.
The farm is also the subject of a new documentary, set to be released soon. Find out more at comfortfarmsmovie.com
Glen Wellman, the butcher
Glen Wellman has been a butcher all of his life. He started at a slaughterhouse in California when he was 16, before joining the Marines. When he got out of the service, he went back to the business of cutting meat through a journeyman program that took him around the country, to Idaho, Texas, and finally Georgia.
When Farmview Market in Madison approached him to become the Director of Meat Operations, Wellman jumped at the chance to get back into the true business of whole-animal butchering. Practically no grocery chains did that anymore. For efficiency and to cut down on the costs for consumers, major processing plants usually made the first cuts and shipped the large pieces to the store. At Farmview, they would be raising their own hogs, lamb, and steers at Rock House Farm, and working with other local farmers with different breeds. Then, it would be up to him to cut the whole animal.
For a trained butcher, this was music to his ears.
And, there would be no rush during the aging process. Whereas major plants typically process the animal quickly after slaughter, at Farmview, he could let the meat hang from seven to fourteen days during a dry aging process.
“The air breaks down the acids within the meats and it adds a little more flavor and makes the meat tender,” he explains. “It’s worth the wait, and definitely makes for a better flavor, better tasting meat.”
And, Wellman knows his stuff when it comes to meat. Though journeyman butchers are rare these days, he passes his knowledge to fellow butchers and continues to educate himself on all aspects of cutting, selling, and cooking meat.
“The butchers you’ll meet here are able to talk you through everything, from how much you need, to the best cuts for what you’re doing,” says Wellman. “There are a lot of cuts out there that people don’t consider that are really great cuts – hangar steaks, skirt steaks, flat iron has been taking off, tri-tips is another popular one. These are all things we are able to get off of every cow. There are things we do here that you just can’t find anywhere else.”
Wellman also shares his knowledge with the community during regular classes and workshops at Farmview. There are hog cutting and beef cutting classes and, of course, his most popular sausage-making classes.
“People love the classes because we’re able to make it interactive,” says Wellman. “We show them how to cut a hog and then we can tie it in with Chef Daniels and move into the kitchen to show them how to cook certain pieces. It’s a whole experience. We’re able to go ‘whole hog,’ I guess you could say.”
Lowell White, Jr., the founder
There were no farmers markets near Lake Oconee when Lowell White, Jr., began developing the Village at Harmony Crossing nearly 15 years ago.
He had buildings going up and businesses moving in and was constantly working on ways to not only bring foot traffic into the shopping center, but also provide a common gathering space for the community he loved, the place where he raised his children.
There were concerts on the lawn, Christmas extravaganzas, and then the idea for a farmers market.
“I wish I could take total credit for it, but it was really Sharon Kramer who did all of the legwork to make it happen,” says White. He had gotten to know Sharon while building a home for her and her husband Ray when they retired to the lake. She took the idea and ran with it, pulling together vendors and overseeing the market until it was up and running. “I really owe her a debt of gratitude,” says White. “Not only did the market fulfill the original idea of bringing people in, but we were able to be part of something the community didn’t have before. It’s been extremely well-received over the years and it’s been a real benefit to us and the community.”
The 20-week season begins in May, and White says more than 500 people come out each Saturday to shop from the 30 or so vendors that comprise the market, all Georgia-grown or Georgia-made.
This year, the market is expanding significantly and moving into the new dedicated greenspace known as Harmony Park. The one-acre oasis is tucked behind the retail center, between the Harbor at Harmony senior living facility and surrounded by Harmony Medical Center.
The manicured grass next to the fountain is now the home of Harmony Park Farmers Market. All around are small touches that make the farmers market a family affair. There’s a playground, a putting green, shuffleboard, and cornhole boards. In fact, patrons can compete in the Harmony Park Triathlon each Saturday morning during the market. Whoever makes the most putts, scores the most in shuffleboard, then cornhole will win a gift certificate to Harmony Crossing. There’s usually live entertainment and fun things for kids, like firetrucks to view and touch for National Firefighters month.
Each Saturday morning, White says he likes to get there early as the vendors are setting up. “It’s fun to see their excitement about the produce they’re bringing in or the pride in the crafts they have,” he says. “Then I get to see the customers come in looking for specific vendors and watch the relationship that form between them. It fits right in with my desire of wanting to help build our community. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to bring this to the community.”
Landon Bubb, the market chef
As dew still glitters in the soft morning light, before the cacophonous yet pleasant roar of happy voices, excitedly parking dogs and gentle bluegrass music, the homegrown Athens Farmer’s Market Chef, Landon Bubb, expertly chops locally-grown vegetables and prepares produce for cooking demonstrations held throughout the weekly Saturday market at Bishop Park.
Bubb moved to Athens in 2010 as a freshman at The University of Georgia, but stuck around after he graduated because throughout his time in the Classic City, he had planted roots with the Athens Farmers Market.
“Back in 2013, I interned at the Athens Farmer’s Market to be more involved — to see where my food came from,” says Bubb. “I knew very little. I had not really shopped at a market, so I interned at the token booth, and it was really through the process of excepting EBT and food stamps that I really saw the patterns of the market — I got to see people increase the dollars they spend in local food.”
Since Bubb got involved with the Athens Farmers Market, he has worked in almost every capacity the market has to offer, and used his Environmental Anthropology degree from The University of Georgia to study how people engage with local agriculture and forge relationships with farmers, vendors and shoppers.
In his most recent role as Market Chef for 2019, Bubb has began overseeing the cooking demonstrations, makes weekly meal plans and posts on the Athens Farmers Market about all things local food.
“I’ve been trying to plan out my meals for the better part of two years. I’ve been very inconsistent about it because it was just a personal thing, but being able to create it for other people has been really helpful for me to stick with it,” he says of the meal planning aspect in his own personal life as well as of his role as Market Chef. “It’s been exciting about how eager people are to have my meal plans. They can come to the market expecting a biscuit and coffee, but they leave having a five day meal plan with what produce is available at the time of the market.”
One of the meals on Bubb’s meal plan, which in the past has included spicy beef salad with local vegetables, curried carrot and lentil soup, and radish curry, is professionally demonstrated at the entrance to the market. Designed so that you can grab your shopping list as you walk in, Bubb’s demonstrations continually draw in crowds to watch, learn and taste.
However, Bubb wasn’t always so adept in the kitchen. During his days as an intern just learning to cook for himself, Bubb would get mostly free vegetables from farmers — so for him, the stakes were low if he destroyed the dish.
“If you approach cooking as a fun activity, the worst case scenario is that you burn something and then order a pizza,” said Bubb reflecting on and laughing at his younger self. “Make sure you give yourself permission to experiment.”
Working in the all the different parts of the market throughout the years has given Bubb a holistic approach to his role in the Athens community.
“I love Athens because it small enough, to where if you have passion and you have drive, you can make palpable change,” said Bubb. “So I feel like having a vision both Sarah Thurman (Marketing Manager) and I share, to make local food accessible, by doing cooking demos and consistent meal plans, you can really make tangible change.