Market Square Farmers Market is Nourishing Knoxville

Market Square in Knoxville, Tennessee was created in 1854 when William Swan and Joseph Mabry donated land to the city with the hopes of a “curb market for farmers forever”. Within a decade of this land endowment, the market became a huge draw and two rows of buildings framed what is now modern-day Market Square. By the 1900s, only one farmer was making regular appearances and by early 2000s no farmers market existed and Market Square was home to only a few businesses.

It was around this time that Art Carmichael, a recent Knoxville resident, joined City People, a downtown resident group with plans to reinvigorate the downtown scene with a renewed farmers market. Art was introduced to some key players, Charlotte Tolley, a recent University of Tennessee grad and current day Nourish Knoxville Executive Director, and Dorian DeLuca, a recent AmeriCorps grad. Together, this core group of people paved the way for the Market Square Farmers’ Market opening in May of 2004. The market opened with much fanfare but only 10 vendors. Originally the market was poorly received, but within 5 years the vendor list grew alongside the quality of offered products. Growth also expanded to include a Wednesday market, 2 additional seasonal market seasons, and more surrounding businesses.

Our market is located in the heart of downtown Knoxville in a vibrant shopping and restaurant community on Historic Market Square,” says Ellie Moore, Nourish Knoxville’s Assistant Director. “With over 120 vendors (peak season), food trucks, buskers, interactive fountains, the MSFM isn’t just a trip to the grocery, it’s an experience, one for the whole family. On any given Saturday, you’ll run into both your best friend and the chef of your favorite restaurant shopping the market.”

Market Square Farmers Market took over our Instagram during National Farmers Market Week! Jump on over and check out the local food and fun from last week’s festivities!


Farmers Market Coalition: Give us a little bit of history about your market.

Ellie Moore: The Market Square Farmers’ Market was launched in May of 2004 with just 10 vendors. Three unpaid volunteers created the MSFM in 2004. Now, the MSFM is run by Nourish Knoxville, a Knoxville-based 501(c)(3), and employs three paid staff members: Charlotte Tolley – Executive Director, Ellie Moore – Assistant Director, and Emily Broyles – Program Assistant. In addition to our paid staff, one of the founding volunteers, Art Carmichael, volunteers nearly every Saturday, May – November. We also have a great partnership with Webb School of Knoxville, a private school located in West Knoxville. These high school students help run our Veggie Valet and conduct our crowd counts every half hour. The MSFM is held May – November, twice a week with a smaller midday market on Wednesdays and a larger morning market on Saturdays. Because our market lasts for the better part of a year, our numbers are constantly in flux. Our Wednesday market will range from ~15 vendors in November to ~40 vendors during peak season (mid-June through mid-September). Similarly, our Saturday market will range from ~70 vendors in November to ~120 vendors during peak season. Total approved vendors for the 2016 season = 145 with an additional 28 vendors who participate sporadically from our waiting list. Some standout products at the MSFM include: pawpaws, cornmeal and grits, chestnuts, cultured buttermilk, and salt brine fermentation chile sauces. Products like turmeric, ginger, hops, paprika, and citrus have also been known to make appearances at the MSFM. Cruze Farm, a local family dairy with a somewhat cultish following, sells their buttermilk, milk, and ice cream from their food truck at the MSFM on Saturdays. As far as our guidelines go – we publish an extensive vendor handbook each year that details our selection criteria, rules, regulations, etc. From its inception, the MSFM was created to showcase food and food products with an emphasis on locally grown and raised agriculture products. All products must be grown, raised, produced, and/or created by the vendor within a 150-mile radius of Knoxville, TN. Absolutely NO resale is permitted.

FMC: Describe your market. 

EM: The Market Square Farmers’ Market is an urban, open-air farmers’ market held in the heart of downtown Knoxville on historic Market Square. The Wednesday & Saturday MSFM’s are held in the same location, Market Square, with the Saturday market occupying an additional two blocks. The MSFM runs from the first week in May – the Saturday before Thanksgiving. In addition to the MSFM, Nourish Knoxville runs two off-season markets, the Market Square Holiday Market (December Saturdays before Christmas) and the Winter Farmers’ Market (every other Saturday, January – April). Both of these markets feature vendors from the MSFM. Our market is located in the heart of downtown Knoxville in a vibrant shopping and restaurant community on Historic Market Square. With over 120 vendors (peak season), food trucks, buskers, interactive fountains, the MSFM isn’t just a trip to the grocery, it’s an experience, one for the whole family. On any given Saturday, you’ll run into both your best friend and the chef of your favorite restaurant shopping the market. In 2016 we had ~155,000 MSFM patrons shop our Saturday markets and ~9000 patrons shop our Wednesday market. Buskers often perform, including bluegrass bands, magicians, and saw players. One never knows what to find on any given day!

FMC: How do you generate neighborhood excitement for your market? 

EM: The MSFM began accepting SNAP in June of 2009. We were the first farmers’ market in the state of Tennessee to accept SNAP benefits through a script, market wide system. Since September of 2015, we have been able to double all SNAP transactions (up to $10.00/transaction) thanks to a USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant through the AARP Foundation. The AARP Foundation received a $3.3 million dollar grant to implement a $6.6 million dollar incentive program (Fre$h Savings) in select grocery stores and farmers’ markets (in Tennessee and Mississippi) to increase the purchase and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by SNAP recipients. We are looking forward to two more years of the Fre$h Savings program (and doubling up to $20.00/transaction!) and hope to continue the program once the AARP Foundation funding expires.

We have partnered with the Knox County Health Department, Slow Food Tennessee Valley, and Knox County’s Community School Initiative to provide field trips to our Wednesday MSFM for select Community Schools in Knoxville’s most underserved neighborhoods. Students tour the farmers’ market, interview farmers, sample in-season vegetables sourced from the MSFM, and then participate in various physical and educational activities. Inspired by the Power of Produce Club program, at the end of the field trip the students receive PoP Bucks to spend on fresh fruits, vegetables, and/or food producing plants of their choosing. These field trips have been a great way to introduce our Community School students to eating healthy and local. We are looking forward to more of these field trips in 2017!

We have four designated busking zones in which buskers can come and set up during market hours. On a peak-season Saturday, all four are always full. We have some great local groups who regularly stop by to perform as well as bands that are waiting to preform at a nearby venues stopping in and playing a song or two.

Our annual Tomato Tasting is always a huge draw. Farmers donate tomatoes, which are sorted into four categories and sliced up for sampling. Our patrons then sample (for free) and vote on their favorite in each category. The winning tomatoes (and farmers who grew them) are announced the following day via our social media platforms. This event draws people from all over East Tennessee and gets tomatoes in the mouths of folks who thought they didn’t like tomatoes. One of our favorite stories: we had a mother talking to our staff about how she was going to sample but how young daughter wouldn’t be sampling because she didn’t like tomatoes. While conversing with the mother, the little girl was grabbing samples of Sungold cherry tomatoes off our table, eating one after the other. This event is such a great way to educate our community that there are so many types of tomatoes out there (not just those rock-hard, barely-ripened orbs you find in the grocery): from sweet to acidic, peachy yellow to deep purple, juicy to beefy. You are going to be hard-pressed not to find at least one you liked.

With help from the FMC and Chipotle, we were able to host PoP Club events at the MSFM in 2015 and 2016. Our PoP Club, now held the 3rd Saturday of every month, gives children the opportunity to participate in an activity (tastings, scavenger hunts, crafts, etc.) and receive vouchers to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables at market. The PoP Clubs have been a great way to get children and their families to try new vegetables and interact with those who are growing their food. We are looking forward to implementing our new curriculum for the 2017 season, which will include, for the first time, passports! We hope the passports (and additional incentives) will encourage more families to keep coming back and become a regular part of the MSFM community.

We have partnered with Knoxville’s Central Business Improvement District (CBID) in a series of events that encourage our community to shop locally with the MSFM and surrounding businesses. During the month of July, the CBID hosts a Find Waldo activity, a scavenger hunt for miniature Waldos hiding in local businesses. The activity gets children and their parents in businesses that they may have never been to before, including the MSFM. The CBID also helped implement a Downtown Discounts promotion during our Wednesday farmers’ market. If a purchase was made within the MSFM, the customer could come up to our information booth, show us their purchase, then receive a coupon for discounts at locally owned businesses downtown. It was a huge success, attracting a lot of downtown employees to the MSFM during their lunch break. We are looking forward to implementing this program again in 2017.

We host Instagram contests a couple of times a year, our largest during Farmers’ Market Week. It’s a great way to get folks familiar with our hashtags and interacting with us! Our parent organization, Nourish Knoxville, encourages all farmers’ markets in our region to participate in our own Instagram competition, as well as the FMC sponsored competition.

The Tennessee Nutrition and Consumer Education Program (TNCEP), through their Farmers Market Fresh program, conducted weekly food demos at our Wednesday farmers’ markets for 12 weeks. Participants sampled the recipes and received giveaway items and recipe cards to collect as incentives. The program was free to all who wished to participate and was a fun way to show our Wednesday customers how to use some of the produce they could find at market.

FMC: How do you promote your market? 

EM: Instagram and Facebook are key when it comes to promoting our market, events, and products. Both of these social media platforms are free and easy to use and allow us to share beautiful (and informative) images of our market, our vendors, and their products. People LOVE pretty pictures of produce and our market. Nourish Knoxville publishes a monthly newsletter that includes all MSFM dates and events and features some of our farmers and their products. Nourish Knoxville also has a PoP Club-specific newsletter that goes our right before each of our PoP Club events as a reminder to parents. After releasing the PoP Club newsletter, we saw participation in our PoP Club events double. We are listed (and advertise) in Nourish Knoxville’s East Tennessee Local Food Guide, a free publication that provides the East Tennessee community with a comprehensive resource for finding locally grown food. These guides are distributed in 28 counties in East Tennessee. We print PoP and Fre$h Savings specific flyers which are distributed at our health department and WIC offices, as well as other places through the community. We have booked specific vendors on local news shows, which is free and always gets a great response. We have also had our local news station come out for opening day and do a live remote, which many people see and is completely free! Nourish Knoxville tables at many events, including health fairs at corporate headquarters, community events, and local festivals to get the word out about all the markets in the area.

FMC: Through your own experience, do you have advice for new markets or markets struggling with their communication strategy?

EM: Get on Facebook and Instagram. These two platforms (with Twitter in a close 3rd) are free and extremely effective at getting the word out. People want to know your market’s story. They want to know your farmers’ stories. Your customers want to interact with you! Even if you can’t post often, having a presence on these sites allows your customers to post/tag/tweet about their experience with you and your market.

People like pictures! Our followers are much more likely to click on a post that has a photo attached to it than one that doesn’t. If possible, we suggest investing in a smart phone with a camera, then downloading Instagram, Repost, Twitter, Facebook, and HootSuite. This will allow you to not only take pictures, but to share them immediately with your customers. It’s not easy finding the time to take pictures, not to mention writing compelling text to go along with them, but with help from an app like HootSuite, you can schedule posts ahead of time across multiple social media platforms. HootSuite also allows you to connect multiple social media platforms with one another! So if you post a really great picture to Instagram, it can also post to your Twitter and Facebook accounts as well. Make sure you follow your local tourism bureau, chamber, or any other local marketing efforts and get on their radar!

If you have a day where you can get out and get a lot of photos, do it! Create a bank of photos that you can use when you are too busy to go out and snap one. Just make sure the photos you post stay relevant – don’t post a picture of blackberries in November or a photo of a farmer who no longer vends at your market.

Design your website for customer interaction, not just vendors. We have made this mistake, and are in the process of making our site much more customer friendly.

FMC: What are some of your market’s challenges and successes?

EM: Challenges include:

Location/ foot traffic – Being in a downtown location has been the best and worst for our market. At its inception, downtown was practically abandoned on weekends, which made getting customer traffic to the MSFM a challenge. The City Government was just happy to have anything there. Slowly, downtown began to improve (starting with Market Square, spreading outwards) thanks to small downtown development groups, local business owners, the MSFM, and City Government. By 2008 customer traffic to the MSFM was no longer an issue. Also, because of our central, downtown location we have connected a lot of farmers and their products to nearby restaurants.

Infrastructure – Originally housed under a small, downtown development organization, the MSFM began to outgrown the organization. In 2013, the MSFM organizers formed Nourish Knoxville, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization created to cultivate connections to local foods in the East Tennessee region, of which the MSFM is an integral part. During this process, the Nourish Knoxville board also solidified the relationship of the MSFM with the City of Knoxville through a contract for Nourish Knoxville to run the MSFM on Market Square for 5 years, with options to continue.

Pets – As the MSFM became more and more popular, incidents involving pets (mainly dogs) endangering and/or frightening patrons increased. These incidents were most common in our most crowded and congested areas of the MSFM, the central aisles, where pets felt threatened in the tight spaces, came into close contact with small children, and where the majority of the produce and other unpackaged food items were being sold. Incidents of defecation/urination in the aisles or on food, tablecloths, coolers, and other items where food was displayed also got out of hand. It was a difficult decision, especially in such a dog-friendly city, but in the interest of personal and food safety, pet-free zones were put in place May 2015 (exemptions: service animals and animals safely confined in carriers). The pet-free zones cover about 50% of the MSFM booths on Saturdays, providing a safe and sanitary shopping experience for all our patrons. Because of our location (public property with access to personal residences), the MSFM will never be 100% pet-free. After implementing the policy, we received a bit of online backlash from the community, but with 2 full years of the new policy under our belts, most of our regular MSFM community has embraced the policy. That’s not to say we don’t have to constantly be enforcing this policy on market days. Because of our location and the increased popularity of Market Square, we do have a lot of new MSFM customers/passerby’s who are not familiar with our policy, requiring a lot of verbal enforcement on top of our signage at market. While most folks are friendly, we do get the occasional customer who expresses their discontent regarding the policy.

Success-wise:

Fair and enforceable rules and regulations. It sounds like a no-brainer, but in practice, is hard to implement. Our Vendor Handbook, which evolves year to year based on what does and doesn’t work and what we can and can’t enforce, is one of our most valuable resources. It save us a lot of time explaining the same items over and over again and allows us to have hard and fast material to lean on when needed.

A management structure that is independent from market, but still allows for vendor input is one of the MSFM’s greatest successes. Having non-vendor market management staff is helpful when it comes to enforcing the rules and regulations mentioned above, but creating a safe and welcoming community where vendors feel comfortable at our market and feel comfortable voicing their opinions is also key. We see the MSFM vendor community engaging in so many positive ways from helping new vendors at market to making an effort to attend vendor meetings and voicing both concerns and congratulations at new policies and programs. Having such an active vendor community who cares about the well being of their fellow vendor, the market, and market staff is something that doesn’t come easily and is something we are incredibly thankful to have.

FMC: Inspire us? 

EM: Our partnership with the Knox County Health Department (KCHD), Slow Food Tennessee Valley, and Knox County’s Community Schools Initiative has been one of our most moving experiences to date. Knox County’s community schools serve as hubs for organizing community resources to improve neighborhood health and safety and student academic success. These schools serve our most in-need families in Knox County. Elementary students from 7 Community Schools participated in a series of field trips to the Wednesday MSFM. Students took tours of the market, interviewed farmers, tasted in-season vegetables sourced from the MSFM, participated in scavenger hunts, and partook in Let’s Move physical activities. Some of the field trips had the opportunity to visit a locally owned restaurant, Emilia, to see how a made-from-scratch meal was created, then got to sample it for themselves. At the end of the field trips, students were given $5.00 to spend on fresh fruits, vegetables, and food producing plants. Students who don’t often eat fresh fruits and vegetables were buying sweet turnips, radishes, cabbages, entire eggplants, and little tomato seedlings. Seeing how excited they were about buying vegetables was uplifting. During our PoP Clubs on Saturdays, we often see the parents taking charge of the PoP Bucks, buying things they want to cook with them or making suggestions like, “Oh, I see fruit over there. You love fruit – let’s use your money at that booth.” Where, had the parent not made the suggestion, the child would have perhaps purchased the sweet turnips they just sampled. With no parents around, the students got to pick out something they were interested in trying, not what their parents thought they may be interested in trying. The field trips received high praises from both teachers and students with notes like, “Our kids were entertained the ENTIRE time.” and “BEST. FIELD TRIP. EVER.” It was extremely rewarding seeing the children not only being exposed to farmers’ markets, the local food system, and fresh fruits and vegetables, but to see them fully immerse themselves in the experience AND enjoy it!