While most shoppers procure locally-grown items at the Cartersville Farmers Market, Chris Pocase is known for adding something special to the open-air grocery experience. For the Cartersville 34-year-old, the outing wouldn’t be the same without one of his bearded dragons taking in the sights beside him.
“I have two different bearded dragons, a male named Jaeger who was with me last Saturday, and a female named Victoria,” Pocase said. “I alternate who comes with me but I bring one each time and they get lots of attention.
“They love to come because they get lots of sunlight and warmth, which is great for them. I am a member of the Georgia Reptile Society so I love getting to tell others all about them, and they’ve become sort of local celebrities when I visit downtown.”
Pocase initially shopped at the Cartersville Farmers Market in 2019, and isn’t letting the COVID-19 pandemic deter him from returning this year.
Like always, his favorite items to shop for are local honey, kale, squash, blueberries and bath bombs. Continuing to follow the market’s COVID-19 safety recommendations this year, he covered his face with a tubular bandana sporting a graphic of a faded American flag for his July 18 outing.
“I have visited three times this year, depending on my work schedule is when I go,” Pocase said. “I was not reluctant to shop as I have been grocery shopping every week during the pandemic, and bringing my mask and hand sanitizer every time.
“I was considered an essential worker for my construction company so I have been working almost daily, and have been taking every precaution while working to stay safe during the outbreak.”
Thanks to shoppers, like Pocase, the Cartersville Farmers Market is thriving in spite of COVID-19. Kicked off May 16, the summer staple is operating from 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday through Sept. 26, at Founder’s Oak parking lot, 10 N. Public Square.
“While most other events and festivals in our community have been put on hold due to COVID-19, the farmers market has been one of the few consistent draws to bringing people into downtown Cartersville,” Bartow County Extension Coordinator Paul Pugliese said. “We’ve seen a tremendous increase in sales this summer and our vendors have been ramping up their production to meet public demand.
“If you ask any vendor at the market, they will tell you that this is by far the best season they’ve experienced for sales. With the implementation of new safety measures at the market, customers appear to have full confidence in the safety of our locally-grown food products.”
Started in the early 1980s, the seasonal offering was spearheaded by the late Bartow County Extension Agent Walter Culverhouse to help local farmers sell their excess produce.
This year’s offering features a total of 37 approved vendors, though many are seasonal or part-time participants. The number of vendors is fewer than past years since only sellers of food and agricultural-related items were accepted.
Along with mandatory vendor training, the market is featuring other COVID-19 safety measures, such as more space between sellers, disinfecting high-touch surfaces, social distancing and advising shoppers to wear face coverings.
“We are pleased that we have had the support of our state and local elected officials to keep the Cartersville Farmers Market open this summer,” Pugliese said. “This year more than ever, there has been a heightened awareness of the importance of local food sources. Farmers markets and local farms are critical to our food supply chain.
“Anecdotally, we’re seeing an increase in home food preservation, as seen by a shortage of jars for canning at local supermarkets. The farmers market serves as an open-air grocery store supporting local small businesses and keeping money within our community.”
Echoing Pugliese’s comments, Cartersville Farmers Market Manager Regina Shaw shared they are seeing a “phenomenal response” to the offering this year, with vendors reporting rising sales numbers.
“Last year, we operated for 18 weeks with market sales totaling $115,000 for the entire season,” said Shaw, whose part-time position is funded jointly by Bartow County government and the city of Cartersville. “So far, our 2020 season sales totaled $191,012 at week 10 of the market, and we still have 12 weekends left to go.
“Our sales numbers have soared this year, despite an hour less of selling time since changing our start time from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., as well as operating with a reduced number of vendors compared to 2019,” she said, adding there were 44 vendors at last year’s market. “Not only have our sales increased, but we’ve seen an overall increase in the number of customers. The last customer count taken in August of 2019 showed 947 visitors to our market. Our most recent count for the 2020 season recorded 1,929 visitors.”
As the owner of Cole’s Vegetables, Cartersville resident Evan Cole is delighted to make his debut appearance at the weekly market this year. His family sells a wide array of vegetables picked from the gardens behind his parents’ home.
He shared, “overall, it has been a great experience,” as shoppers visit his tent to purchase items, such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, squash, cucumber, watermelon and gourds.
“Our squash is our biggest seller,” said the 24-year-old. “My parents and I work out in the garden daily until dark. The weather has been great but [the] biggest obstacle has been keeping the deer out of the garden.
“It has been a good growing season so far. The tomatoes are starting to produce pretty good. It took them a while this year to start producing red ones.”
“I am thankful that even with the global pandemic going on that the farmers market is still able to take place this year,” Cole said. “They provide all vendors with masks and gloves to help keep our community safe. They also keep count of the amount of people that come in and out.
“I think the coronavirus has hit the local grocery stores hard, which gives the local farmers a better chance to sell their produce because many people haven’t been wanting to go into an indoor grocery store. So they can just come to an outdoor market weekly to get all of their produce instead.”
Expanding on Cole’s comments, Shaw underscored how the market is attracting new patrons due to COVID-19.
“Along with many other factors, it seems that the limited amount of products on grocery store shelves during this time has led the public to acknowledge the importance of supporting their local food system,” Shaw said. “Some customers originally stopped by the market just to pick up one or two products that may not be in stock at the grocery, then they end up coming back because they love the experience so much.
“They enjoy building a relationship with the producer and know that they are valued. Buying straight from the producer is basically buying from the experts. They are there to answer any and all questions about their products. Customers also feel good knowing that the money stays in this community.”
Further details about the Cartersville Farmers Market can be found on its Facebook page.