CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They're lawyers and yoga instructors. Busy young parents and retirees. They show up in professional clothes or jogging shorts when they pull into two Charleston church parking lots on Thursday evenings, but they share a common interest. They have a passion for locally grown vegetables and fruits, meats, eggs, baked goods and herbs, which they order from Monroe Farm Market, a farming co-op based in Monroe County.
The co-op was formed in 2005 as a means for farmers in Monroe and neighboring counties to get their products to market. Today, the co-op offers food and products produced by 25 farmers in Monroe and nearby counties.
Every Sunday at 8 p.m., customers, about 470 currently, receive a weekly email listing seasonal fruits and vegetables, beef, chicken, lamb, pork, eggs, baked goods and crafted items. Orders for Thursday delivery may be placed through noon on Tuesday and are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.
Savvy shoppers get their orders in early or risk seeing the dreaded "Available: 0" notation by the desired item. "I watch when the first orders are posted on Sunday. Within 15 minutes, all my asparagus is gone," said Tommye Lou Rafes, of T.L. Fruits and Vegetables. Asparagus, blueberries and peaches are big sellers for Rafes, as are fennel and young tender spicy mustard greens. "I couldn't grow them fast enough," she said.
The farmers harvest, pack and label the orders, then take them to the local senior center, where they load chilled items into coolers and sort the rest of the orders in boxes by customers' names. A driver runs the orders to two Charleston delivery sites on Thursdays. Customers pick up their orders from 4 to 6 p.m. at Unity of Kanawha Valley Church, in South Hills, or Unitarian Universalist Church, 520 Kanawha Blvd.
Shannon Vollmer stopped by last week to pick up an order for her young family. "We order very single week. We get fresh free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, vegetables. They have all sorts of great things," she said. "I love that they're so reliable. Every single thing I've ordered has been wonderful."
The Vollmers joined Monroe Farm Market two years ago after her husband heard about it from friends at the gym.
Vollmer said the prices are comparable to what she pays for organic produce, free-range eggs and grass-fed beef at the grocery store. "Organic is a high priority for me, and I like that I'm buying from West Virginia farmers," she said.
The majority of the farmers do not use herbicides, pesticides or any chemical application. Their products are designated "chemical free" on the website. Jennifer "Tootie" Jones, of the historic Swift Level estate, offers grass-fed beef. She explained that her cattle feed on grass only from the farm's pastures year-round, supplemented in winter with hay from her fields, which have received no chemical applications in 19 years. Her methods contrast with many commercial producers of grass-fed beef who "finish" the cattle on grain for the last part of their lives to fatten them up.
Becky McCormick greets customers by name as they pick up their orders in South Hills. McCormick works in Charleston, but her father, Dirk McCormick, owns Byrnside Branch Farm, in Union. He sends her a care box with each delivery. Last week's was a salsa box, loaded with tomatoes and peppers.
Susan Conner heard about the market at a presentation at her garden club. She signed up on the spot. Yearly membership for Charleston delivery is $80, which covers delivery and market operating costs.
"I love the produce," Conner said as she picked up cousa squash, a variety she said she hadn't seen since her childhood. "I know it hasn't been in a refrigerated warehouse for two weeks, then on a truck for a week. This was picked yesterday." McCormick confirmed that it had been. Her husband, Cloyd, who accompanied her to pick up their order, said he appreciates the quality of the meats, especially the pork which he said isn't injected with saline.
"The eggs are wonderful. The yolks are orange," she said. "There's no comparison."
Customers confessed that they sometimes forget what they ordered.
"It's like Christmas when I open the box and see what's in there," said Deb Mattingly as she picked up vegetables and eggs. "I appreciate eating what's in season, but then I'm sad when it's gone."
Although Jen Wagner and her husband eat a largely vegetarian diet, it was the quality and taste of the grass-fed beef and smoked trout that first attracted them to the market. They eat so little meat they want it to be special, said Wagner as she filled her reusable bags with her weekly supply of produce.
Kathleen DuBois joined the market six months ago partially because she wanted to eat a more healthful diet. As she peruses the list each week, she finds herself ordering produce she wouldn't normally order, such as the rhubarb she used to make pie and jam.
She made Asian slaw, zucchini bread and salsa with the contents of a recent order.
Their customers' enthusiasm fuels the market's growth and the variety of products grown, said manager Jennifer Frye. As the number of customers grows, more producers are using high tunnels to extend their growing season into cold weather to meet the demand. High tunnels are structures made of retractable plastic stretched over metal arches to create a protected growing environment. They resemble greenhouses but do not require heaters.
Frye accepted her position in January and has been impressed with the farmers' dedication.