As spring makes its final entrance across our region, a sunny morning at a local farmers market presents an appealing prospect. The image of tables piled high with brightly colored carrots and lettuce draws people from their beds all across the Charlotte area.
But those crops don't pile themselves. Nor do they harvest, clean or transport themselves. No, behind every booth stands a vendor who can tell you the market day starts well before Saturday morning sunrise.
Farmers Joe and Dani Rowland have been selling at area markets for about six years, usually splitting up to cover two per week. This year they will enter a third, having just been accepted at Matthews Community Farmers Market.
One of their specialties is fresh chicken, meaning their Saturday preparations start on Thursday with poultry processing. That technically means they start Wednesday, when Dani makes her first trip to a local ice plant.
"We go through about 400 pounds of ice every week," says Joe. That's enough to chill freshly killed birds, with another load on Friday to fill coolers in preparation for hot market days. Fridays are also the prime day for harvesting produce for markets, especially during the spring," says Dani.
"We want things to be as fresh as possible, so we try and wait to pick everything on Friday. So on Saturday we can say 'This was picked 24 hours ago.'"
Harvesting is just the first step, though. Produce is then carefully washed by hand, and in many cases weighed, before being bundled or bagged for market.
Farmers aren't the only ones starting preparations days ahead. Cheesemaker Zack Gadberry begins building inventory of UAV products on Wednesday or Thursday, and may even find himself making extra mozzarella early Saturday morning to fill last-minute orders. He and wife Victoria have been selling fresh Italian cheeses and cultured butter at Matthews and the regional markets for the past three years.
"Maybe originally it was all done on Friday, because we didn't have all the products we do now," says Victoria. "But not anymore." Nowadays UAV's lineup of 15 products includes feta and goat cheeses that require several days to brine or age.
Even with two days of preparation, Friday is a long one for both businesses, sometimes stretching to 11 p.m. or midnight. No matter how organized their week, the farmers and the cheesemongers often find themselves scrambling to pack a little extra for late orders. The Rowlands have tried to cut their hours back, especially since the arrival of baby Ella last September, but they still stay busy until after 7 p.m.
Saturdays start early, around 4 a.m., for the Rowlands and Gadberrys, regardless of season. Both households experience a fast, Spartan start to the morning.
"Shower? What's a shower?" jokes Dani Rowland. "There's no shower, there's no breakfast." The chickens don't care that it's market day; they still need water and feed before loading commences.
There are more than ice-packed coolers to sling into the trucks, too. Tables, signs, baskets and other accoutrements come along to create an attractive display that helps drive sales. With lots of grocery store experience, the Rowlands pay particular attention to arranging their merchandise.
"Making it look abundant and full and fresh is really important," says Dani, who says it takes her an hour or more to arrange those eye-catching bunches of carrots and lettuce. And that job doesn't finish when the opening bell rings. Not only do piles need restacking as customers browse, but in hot weather, sensitive produce rotates in and out of the coolers.
"As people shop, I'm constantly moving things," says Joe, confirming that selling means more than chatting with customers and taking their money. "We start with three tables, and by the end of the day we have one little table in the middle."
Even chatting with customers and taking their money, however, can be a challenge, especially during the first rush. As lines lengthen, regulars and new customers need equal attention, whether that means remembering to grab an order held back, or explaining how smoked mozzarella is made. Part of the experience of the farmers market is that connection with the producer, and that means extra conversation time is part of the deal.
The end of the day goes beyond the last sale of beets or butter. When the Matthews market shuts down at noon, Zack Gadberry packs up and drives over to join Victoria at the Regional Market, where they are required to remain until 2 p.m., regardless of whether they've sold out. After closing up and driving home, they usually wind up their day around 4 p.m. — 12 hours after they started.
Joe and Dani Rowland's market day usually ends a little earlier, typically finding them back at the farm by 2 p.m. But they still have about four hours of unloading, cleaning, record keeping and more chicken chores before hitting the couch for a few hours of a different kind of vegging. "On Saturday night, we're not having our other farmer friends over for a fiddle session," Dani says with a laugh.
For Zack Gadberry, who works overnight during the week, Sunday is his only down time. "That's been an adjustment for me, kind of like a chef's wife," says Victoria. "In my head, this is our one day together, and I want to go do something. In his head, this is his one day to not do anything. I try to give him that more often than not, because that's all he gets."
Going over their own Sunday catch-up schedule, Joe Rowland points out that in all their days of market prep, "We haven't done any farming yet. We haven't grown anything. We haven't planted anything."
Yet all the vendors still relish their one day a week seeing customers face-to-face. As Dani Rowland says, "That what fuels us to go back. . . even when we are weeding for hours in 90-degree weather and half our broccoli crop isn't coming up."
So as happy as we may be to see the farmers standing behind their booths, they're even happier to see us.