Each Thursday afternoon of the summer, Ag Heritage Park on Auburn’s campus comes alive with gleaming vegetables, blooming flowers and eager customers.
Last week, I taste-tested my way through the 24 vendors, who offered me everything from creamed honey to pecan pancakes to peach ginger ice cream.
“The Market” is an outreach for the local community, keeping in connection with Auburn’s college of agriculture. Since it’s a growers and producers market, every tent has a grower or producer standing behind the counter, said Laura Herring, market manager.
“The education that comes with having the grower here is huge,” said Herring. “Plus, it’s a chance to get fresher produce than you can out of the grocery store and just an opportunity to support the local community.”
So as I quickly learned, it wasn’t just squash and zucchinis and sweet tooth cravings that I was picking up. I was also getting personal stories and little sprouts of information about Alabama’s farming community.
I met Ben McGehee, an 82-year-old former carpenter, turned beekeeper. His hobby started 11 years ago, although he said his dad kept bees when he was a young boy, just to keep something sweet on the table for their family. McGehee now has 35 hives spread out over six locations in Lee County.
Healthy hives have 55,000 – 60,000 bees, but according to McGehee, it’s hard to keep bees healthy these days. He explained that non-native bee species have been brought into the country with mites, beetles and a disease unofficially known as “colony collapse.” And a weakened hive means—you guessed it—no honey.
For MeGehee, his busy bees are doing alright. He sells his honey at The Market and from his home, occasionally stopping by the Lee County flea market if he’s feeling up for it.
I also met the Whorton family, who was up for its biggest challenge yet. With a wide array of 18 sorts of fruits and vegetables spread out before them, I asked them how long they had been farming.
“Two months,” Andy and Renee, both 1997 Auburn graduates, replied chuckling.
Andy explained that they had previously spent 11 years living amid the hustle and bustle of Atlanta. As an environmental consultant, he said he traveled often and couldn’t be there for his wife and three kids—Joshua, Jackson and Lydia Joy—nearly as much as he’d like.
When an opportunity came to buy some family land in Coosa County, the Whortons took it. Andy and Renee are both Alabama natives, so the name of their farm, Back Home Farms, seemed fitting.
“Everything is hard at the beginning, but I love doing it,” said Andy, who is selling his produce at five farmers markets and through community supported agriculture. “I think there’s almost something sacred to being able to produce something off of a plot of land.”
The hardest thing for Renee? Living an hour from Target.
And although I will be the first to admit, living away from Target isn’t easy (I did it last summer!), one place I won’t be frequenting is the grocer’s produce section. One trip to The Market, and I bet you won’t be either!
The Market at Ag Heritage Park is in its 6th summer and is open Thursdays from 3 to 6 p.m. through the end of August. Come early for the best selection. Bring cash, a reusable shopping bag, a bottle of water and an open mind to learn from all the buyers and producers have to offer!