Brief History of Alexandria’s Farmers’ Market
Across the street from my apartment is the Old Town Alexandria Farmers’ Market. It has a storied history, beginning with its founding in 1753. When we first paid an early morning visit (almost 50 years ago) we could buy fresh pork, delicious chickens, hams, butter, and cream to die for, along with local vegetables, fruit, and flowers. It was so local that vegetables in winter were only dense root vegetables, or DRVs as we called them. We watched over the years with growing dismay as some of the old purveyors were shut down thanks to the City government enforcing punitive health regulations. Mind you, we bought their meats, poultry, and dairy for years and suffered not a single ill effect. Then we saw a proliferation of sellers who had oranges, dyed sunflowers in astonishing colors, and other impossible produce that, at best, was picked up at Restaurant Depot. (Citrus groves tend to be scarce even in the most rural parts of Virginia.) A few stalwarts carried on amid the proliferation of craft stands, I am not against crafts, except I have yet to learn how to cook a meal with them. So I folded my little shopping bag and looked elsewhere. FreshFarm Markets was just opening up on Sundays at DuPont Circle and we discovered the Arlington Farmers’ Market, which opened on Saturdays. So we moved on.
San Giovanni’s Farm Is A Hope Fulfilled
But, in the last few years, Old Town’s historic market has had a renaissance, perhaps fielded by a younger group of Market Managers. We now have a wonderful composting station, flowers and herbs, cheeses, mushrooms, eggs, meat products, snacks, fruits, vegetables, and milk, which brings me to this latest addition to In My Neighborhood.
A tiny stand built from slatted crates opened recently and the owners displayed arugula that was so tender and delicious, I thought I was in Italy. Little breakfast radishes that had a French accent, and an unbelievable selection of microgreens in the summer and winter that we buy weekly to make salads. There is a person in my household, who will easily pick up that second pork chop, but can usually manage to eat only a mouthful of salad. The greens from San Giovanni’s Farm stand have made him a changed man. ( A big plus is that they have small bouquets of flowers seasonally, which will last a week.) and I’ve heard our Kitchen Detail editor wax rhapsodic about some teensy turnips she bought at the stand and sautéed.
The Little Garden That Could
So here are some vital facts that are important to know about this one-acre farm, which produces not only vegetables, but also herbs, flowers, and outstanding microgreens. San Giovanni’s Farm Garden is certified organic by Demeter USA, which is the only certifier for Biodynamic farms and products in America. Demeter USA is part of Demeter International, founded in 1928 and now with 60 participating countries. Demeter has the strictest criteria for farms wishing to become members, far surpassing the norms established by the US government. San Giovanni’s, for example, sources their seed from certified organic and non-GMO sources. Their fertilizers are compost, alfalfa, and chicken manure.
Their growing and harvesting techniques are pretty much done by hand (with some simple machinery). I learned that they use a no-till philosophy, which actually reduces considerably soil erosion from wind and water. No-Till can also diminish demand for fuel and labor and improve the overall health and structure of the soil while repressing weeds, retaining sufficient moisture, and building organic matter in the soil . If you are in the area, you may want to organize a visit to this little garden that could.
Small Market Gardens Are Viable
Although so much of farming in the US has chosen the bright shiny object route, much to our detriment I believe, some interesting statistics should encourage the type of gardening exemplified by San Giovanni’s Market Garden and others who have chosen this path:
One person full-time can hand handle 1 acre of intensive production – and more often it is two people who share the work. This type of farming is suitable to a wide variety of crops, particularly what are called High Dollar Crops: salad mixes, heirloom tomatoes, and cut flowers, for example. These market gardens not only sell in local farmers’ markets, but also to restaurants and through the the CSA movement.
The one-acre ideal goes back to the Middle Ages, when it was the amount of land that could be ploughed in one day with a yoke of oxen (usually a rectangle measuring “four rods by one furlong” or 4, 840 square yards.) And in the 21st century this plot of land can yield $20,000 for mixed vegetables or more, if salad mixes, herbs and cut flowers are grown. As the bulk of expenses is seeds, plants, and supplies (not pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and other Monsanto addictions) and no additional labor, the margin is usually 50% or over.
Check out Lynn Brczinski’s book for a motherlode of information on this little-known agricultural insurgency:
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.