“It’s All About Growing a Local Food Economy”
Interview and photos by Rebecca Long
I recently had the opportunity to interview Katie Morrison, director of Oxford City Market (OXCM). Tuesday afternoons are busy for her, but she made time to talk with me while this impressive Market was taking place, though she’s very modest about her part in its success. This was my first visit to OXCM since it opened this Spring, so I spent some time acclimating myself to my surroundings—a giant tent full of tables and sturdy bins provided by the Market for its vendors. Many farms from around Mississippi were represented, and there was a kids’ activity table full of peaceable, entertained children whose parents were busy buying some of the freshest, most beautiful produce I’ve ever seen. People of all ages and all types were there—and people were smiling and laughing at every turn.
OXCM first opened May 15th, a little later than scheduled due to iffy weather. The Market was made possible by a one-time grant from the USDA, which Katie Morrison says is “intended to cover some initial setup costs and allow you … to figure out [how] you can be successful. It helped us buy this big tent, helped provide some resources to help with public transportation and getting EBT into the Market, which we’re very excited about. We’re getting the word out now to local organizations that work with low-income residents that we have this available. Again before next Spring we’ll do a big public information campaign to let people know that we take EBT and we can provide bus tokens to folks who need [them].” Wooden tokens in different denominations can be purchased at the Market table via EBT as a way for customers to be able to shop with several different vendors easily. Cash is accepted by all vendors, and Morrison says the folks at the Market table will even swipe your credit card so you can get cash to spend with the vendors.
OXCM’s involvement in Oxford’s community, and the cooperation of community groups is inherent in its organization and mission. Volunteer Oxford sets the Market up with folks who want to help out and has featured OXCM on their “Volunteer Spotlight” radio show. Also, Morrison says, “We take a crate of produce every week out to The Food Pantry. They have a distribution on Wednesday mornings, and all the credit for the generosity goes to the farmers because they just give me stuff and let me take it to The Food Pantry.”
“Because this is a city market,” Morrison continued, “We are trying to do everything we can to work cooperatively with other groups. We do a lot with Good Food for Oxford Schools (GFOS). We are always trying to help connect farmers to other outlets, or getting into local stores like the Farmers’ Market or B.T.C. Grocery in Water Valley. We have a lot of student interest and folks who want to see access to local food—fresh produce being used more through restaurants or any other kind of food service programs.”
Morrison and her team are “trying to get a good network of farmers going.” She explained that cooks and restaurant owners are coming to the Market, meeting chefs, and making plans for larger-scale orders to be picked up or delivered—often at the next week’s Market. Yokna Bottoms Farm has their CSA delivery at the Market, which Morrison says, “Works great for us and even for other farmers… It’s good set traffic for us. And the other market goers get to learn about their CSA.” Vendors have begun to cooperate, purchasing produce from each other to be included in their CSA shares. Morrison says they’ve started this “because it keeps people happy. It’s all about growing a local food economy.”
The Market is always looking for vendors—not only local farmers but artists, craftsmen, people who like to bake and can. Vendor applications and info are available on OXCM’s website (oxfordcitymarket.com), along with as USDA guidelines on how to treat edibles and what can be sold. Morrison explains, “There are some certain products like eggs, fish, seafood, poultry—many of your more hazardous foods, if you will—that require a certain level of knowledge and handling. You have to have certain permits. But, on that same side of the coin, we are willing to help people maneuver all the hoops they have to jump through to get their certification, and who to call for an inspection.”
“Another reason we want the Market to grow,” says Morrison, is “because the best thing to drive down prices is competition. If everybody shows up with okra in the same week, [it] gets cheap. Produce is only expensive if there’s one person sitting out there selling it, because they’ve got the whole game.”
“Another thing we have,” says Morrison, “is a lot of ‘certified naturally grown’ and organic vendors. There are a lot of people who [want] organic produce—they are not interested in produce that has been sprayed with pesticides. And ‘certified naturally grown’ is a way to say ‘organic’ and not have to pay the USDA $10,000.”
“Something that I would encourage people to do,” says Morrison, “is bring your kids out, let them see what vegetables and fruits look like. Talk to the farmers.” It’s a good idea to ask plenty of questions, she says.
The Tuesday afternoon time slot is important. Morrison said, “That was where we saw the need. Mid-town sells on Saturday and Wednesday mornings, so we felt like the 8 am crowd was served, so to speak.” She explained, “If everybody’s got a farmers’ market going, then you just get your very local farmers. Very local. To me, local food isn’t just five miles—it’s a much greater radius than that. There were no other markets on Tuesdays, so we thought we could probably draw some people. And we did. We had growers from Greenwood and Tupelo and Ashland, Mississippi, so they are coming from farther.” In fact, they’ve had over 45 vendors this year.
Trezevant Realty temporarily donated the land housing the Market. They’re talking with Oxford’s Board of Aldermen about contingency plans, and Trezevant has, Morrison says, “also been nice enough to say that if for some reason they should sell this plot they will have space for us. They’re very, supportive and we’re very thankful to John Trezevant and John McCurdy.”
Oxford City Market will stay open until the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. On pushing back the season, Morrison said, “I think we’ve all settled into the mindset that the farmers’ market dwindles down in September and that there’s nothing left. Not true at all. If you think about harvest festivals, they happen in the Fall. All that stuff that everybody was really excited about in the Spring—salad greens and radishes and all those crispy Spring things—those are back in addition to all the cool Fall stuff like kale and squash and pumpkins. There’s a really good variety out here. We’ve been very lucky. I was nervous that we would have certain times of the year when everybody brought the same stuff. And sometimes that’s good because you have abundance, but it’s also good to have variety.”
The variety I found at Oxford City Market was remarkable. Spend a few minutes on a Tuesday afternoon to stop by and buy some truly fresh, local produce—you’ll be glad you did!