By Karen Ott Mayer | Photography courtesy of Hernado Farmers market
The first market manager for the Hernando Farmers Market remembers the enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit that was the catalyst to create one of Mississippi’s best Saturday markets.
More than 10 years ago, community leaders Shelly Johnstone and Mickey Davis sat down and talked economic development ideas and “cool factors” that could help make Hernando, Mississippi, a destination of choice.
“I remember Mickey asking me what I thought about a farmers market and I thought it was a great idea,” says Johnstone, the former community development director for the City of Hernando who is now an independent consultant.
Under the leadership of then Mayor Chip Johnson, the trio set off a spark known as the Hernando Farmers Market, one of the largest and most popular in Mississippi. Founded in 2008, the market happens every Saturday morning on the historic square from April through September. It is widely recognized as an integral part of local Hernando life and invites everyone from ukulele players to bicyclists to stop by.
As the first market manager, I remember the sheer enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit that filled those early days. With few regulatory barriers, open-minded leaders and pioneering vendors who weathered those initial slow Saturdays, the market grew.
Last year, more than 180,000 visitors came to the market, generating more than $100,000 in sales. More than 50 vendors traveled on average 27 miles to sell their wares.
Originally working with DeSoto County as a partner, the Hernando Farmers Market evolved through several chapters and now resides under the City of Hernando.
“In the beginning, the county partnership was indispensable to the success. County Administrator Michael Garriga got it and was a huge help,” shares Johnstone. Creative thinking was a necessity. “The biggest challenge initially was finding vendors. I had no idea how to locate them. Joy Anderson was a big help because she knew farmers.”
Joy Fox Anderson, Extension Agent IV, is the DeSoto County Director and remains active with the market.
“Our first three vendors were canners; the fresh fruit and vegetables came later,” adds Johnstone.
Over the years, we all have answered many questions about the market and one question always prevails: How did we create the Hernando market? Perhaps an equally important question is how has Hernando held strong?
“By staying true to its mission of providing fresh, accessible agricultural products and going above and beyond other market requirements,” says Gia Matheny, Hernando’s current director of community development.
Following in Johnstone’s footsteps, Matheny has succeeded in leading the market to new heights. In late 2018, the Hernando Farmers market received a $197,677 USDA FMPP grant to help further build capacity. With an onsite program, shoppers can buy tokens if they run out of cash. Low income shoppers benefit too. They have an opportunity to access fresh foods with their EBT/SNAP card.
Children’s free activities, Senior Days, storytelling with the Mississippi Humanities Council, cooking demonstrations, yoga, fitness classes, Baby Day, and live music are just a few of the free happenings during the market season.
“I love the variety of products, the social aspect and the open-air environment of the market. Locals come for the fresh local food. Shoppers start to build a relationship with vendors and it becomes a weekly treat to have a conversation with the person who grew the food,” says Matheny.
“I loved and love the market because it is a community event. It is not just a place where people buy and sell food. That community coming together is a thing of beauty.”
But what drives the market in the end? The vendors themselves. Farmers like Billy Ray Brown who milks cows at the crack of dawn and bakers like Florence Keel have been part of the market since day one. It’s those people with their hands in the dirt and sweat on their brow make the market happen every Saturday.