Gerri Ciancanelli was driving through downtown Meridian on a July morning when she spotted a watermelon. Figuring that a watermelon probably doesn’t dwell alone, she decided to stop and investigate, and soon she was purchasing produce at the Meridian Area Farmer’s Market at Union Station.
“I was driving past and I saw it under the viaduct,” said Ciancanelli, in town for a day from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. “I like fresh fruit.”
The Meridian Area Farmer’s Market continues to thrive this year, despite a tough, rain-drenched season — and despite the fact that the six-day-per-week market, under the rumbling viaduct near Union Station, still remains a secret to some people in the community.
Jeania Johnson, from Hickory, grows tomatoes, peas, corn, snap beans, okra and other crops, and she sells canned preserves, as well. She and her husband, Chad, grow the crops together, with help from her father, Ross Little, the vice president of the Meridian Area Farmer’s Market.
“We had that late frost, so we were planting late, and then we had all that rain,” Johnson said as she was selling produce under the bridge a recent weekday morning. “That kills a lot of your squash and cucumbers (and other crops).”
Johnson’s observations take statistical shape in records from the National Weather Service’s Jackson office. In Meridian, 11.09 inches of rain fell in June, with significant influence from Tropical Storm Cindy.
That’s the largest June rainfall total here since 1900, according to National Weather Service records, and it followed an April precipitation total of 9.93 inches – or about twice the average for that month. May’s rainfall total was close to the norm.
Johnson said her family “stage plants” peas and corn, staggering the planting of crops to take advantage of good weather spells to balance out the rainy ones. The method, as she described it, also expands the stretch of time for producing peas and corn.
“That means instead of just having three weeks of peas available for people, you have numerous weeks,” she said, gesturing to some peas on her table. Then she added with a chuckle: “These are just coming in, and hopefully — if the deer don’t come in and eat them — we’ll have more peas.”
Vendors from two organizations
The Meridian Area Farmer’s Market and Earth’s Bounty are separate organizations, but the two often sell their wares side-by-side, and they share the goal of introducing local agricultural products to the public.
Vendors come to the Meridian Area Farmer’s Market at Union Station, under the bridge, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday, from mid-April through the first Saturday of November. Coordinated by the Mississippi State University County Extension, in Lauderdale County, the Meridian Area Farmer’s Market features okra, tomatoes, peppers, peas, corn and plenty of other offerings.
On the first Saturday of each month, they’re joined, in the neighboring square, by vendors from Earth’s Bounty, coordinated by the City of Meridian, with vendors who set up camp from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. from the first Saturday of April through the first Saturday of November.
Craig Wilkes, a member of Earth’s Bounty’s board, said the monthly Saturday events involve festivities and products somehow related to agriculture. He ticked off a panoply of agricultural products and pursuits featured by Earth’s Bounty, including honey, various home-baked products, candles, goat milk and soy-based products.
“You’ll also have people who sell plants, both agricultural and decorative,” he said.
The products, Wilkes added, must be locally-made and agriculturally-based.
“So we don’t sell baseball caps,” he said.
Laura Carmichael, the cultural affairs director for the City of Meridian, said 30 to 40 vendors come out for Earth’s Bounty each month, and she noted a growing number of festivities and children’s activities.
“We’re reaching out to find new vendors who sell agriculturally related products,” she said. “We even hope to have a night market coming up.”
Earth’s Bounty was founded by Andy Smith about seven years ago, Carmichael said. Smith, a revered teacher and agricultural innovator, died in 2013.
Patty Swearingen, Lauderdale County coordinator for the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said the 14 vendors who are members of the Meridian Area Farmer’s Market enjoy the loyalty of regular customers — but she senses an untapped cache of clients.
“We still have a lot of people who don’t realize the market is open Monday through Saturday,” she said. “Many people just associate it with the one Saturday each month.”
Vendors, too, say they’d like to see more people come out — and James Ford, who’s been selling fruits and vegetables at the market for a couple of decades, said the endeavor remains unknown to many people in the community.
“I say, ‘Come see us at the Farmer’s Market,’ and they say, ‘Farmer’s Market? Where’s that at?’” Ford said.
Ford, whose farm lies between Vimville and Causeyville, was offering canary melons, watermelons, cantaloupes, corn, eggplants, tomatoes and other produce at the market on a recent weekday morning. Ford gave credit to his wife, a traveling nurse, for his good health — but he also noted the role hard work at the market has played throughout his life.
“I think a lot of the reason (I’m living) is my belief that you push yourself to the limit — and just know what your limits are,” he said.
The chance to innovate
Wilkes speculates that even more agricultural opportunities lurk under the soil for the innovative and the adventurous.
On a recent afternoon Wilkes, who also runs a community garden in Meridian called “Love and Peas,” plucked what turned out to be a deeply, sweetly fragrant herb from a clutch of plants in the garden. He held up a sprig of tulsi, or holy basil.
“This is a perfect business opportunity for somebody,” he continued. “This grows as a weed here. It reseeds everywhere.”
Wilkes said tulsi tea is imported from Sri Lanka – a country that’s farther away from the average tea drinker in the United States than a place such as, say, east Mississippi.
“So my thought is, why couldn’t someone have a tea farm — a holy basil, tulsi tea farm in Mississippi,” he said. Tulsi, he said, “loves the heat and the humidity,” a quality that not every crop grown in the state shares.
Wilkes’ point, he explained, is that “non-traditional crop opportunities” could, with a little prodding of the mental and the physical soil, sprout in the area.
A focus on food’s origins
The community’s growing consciousness of food sources could strengthen the local markets, suggested Shani Hay, extension agent for Mississippi State University Extension in Lauderdale County.
“People are becoming more and more concerned with where their food is coming from,” Hay said, noting that educational outreach efforts are helping to ingrain that awareness in people’s minds.
Irene Harrison, SNAP-Ed Educator for the Mississippi State University Extension Service in Lauderdale County, speaks to children and families throughout the area at schools, churches and other venues. Often, she said, what’s needed to make the food palatable to people who might resist isn’t so much a spoonful of sugar as a skillful chef.
“Sometimes it’s how you prepare food,” Harrison said. “You might not like it because it’s not prepared the way you like.”
Harrison worked with the Lauderdale County Master Gardeners and Meridian Public School District members to create a community garden at T.J. Harris Upper Elementary School this past spring. Plans are in the works for another garden, she said, with students from the Lauderdale County School District.
The customers who came to the market at Union Station on a recent July weekday morning – a steady stream of families, along with adults on their own – seemed to relish the interaction with vendors as much as they valued the food. And as Rodgers Rahaim pointed out, those two forces – the food and the human interaction – are not necessarily all that far apart.
“I enjoy coming here because they have great produce,” said Rahaim, of Clarkdale, who’s frequented the market for a dozen years. “You don’t go wrong with any of them, and you don’t have to go through a third party. It’s just coming from them to you.”