"I realized when I first came here how seriously these producers take the issue of quality. If it's not right, if it's not something they'd use themselves, they pull it and won't send it," Frye said. "Each product is picked by the producer specifically to fill an order. When you're at Walmart, you have no idea who picked that squash for you."
Johnny Spangler owns Spangler's Greenhouse and Farm, one of the market's biggest suppliers. His micro greens appear on dishes in Charleston establishments such as Bluegrass Kitchen, Bridge Road Bistro and Mission Savvy. The Greenbrier is a big customer of the greens he grows nine months out of the year in four high tunnels.
Today, he produces mostly specialty greens and micro greens on his family-owned farm, but he grew other crops when he founded Monroe Farm Market in 2005 with three other farmers.
Like his neighbors, his Greenbrier County farm wasn't near any large markets. "Around here, the cows outnumber people 5 to 1. Most folks grow their own produce. We had no customer base. I needed to support my children," he said.
He'd tried selling his produce in farmers markets, but couldn't afford the time it took to travel to a market and man a booth. He established a 100-member Community Supported Agriculture in which customers paid a set fee and got weekly boxes of whatever produce was available, but customers tired of receiving produce they couldn't use.
"One person would say, 'Don't give me any more beets,' while someone else said she hoped those beets kept coming," he said. "I realized that evolving technology would allow customers to get online and order just what they wanted."
"Today, we can pretty much fill a grocery order. It's really evolved. The quality and variety we're able to put out there is so much better," Spangler said.
The convenience and efficiency of online ordering was especially attractive to Rafes, who joined the market this year to sell vegetables, peaches and blueberries she grows on her small, remote farm near Organ Cave. When sales close on Tuesday, she knows exactly how much she needs to harvest and package for Thursday delivery.
"I'm a one-man show. I do all the work myself. I couldn't give up a day to sit at a farmers market, hoping that someone would buy," Rafes said. "I probably wouldn't be able to do this without the market."
Jones was invited to bring her farm's grass-fed, hormone-free beef to the market four years ago. An enthusiastic promoter of locally grown foods, Jones said Swift Level beef fit well with the market's mission to produce and sell foods locally and keep profits in the area of origin.
"Last year, the market farmers made more than $100,000. The market allowed that money to stay where it was made. It didn't leave West Virginia. And that's a good thing," Jones said.
Jones butchers about four steers a month and always sells out. She sells just about all the steer, from the tail to the cheek. Swift Level sells lots of ground beef as well as other cuts to market customers, while restaurants like the prime cuts. In Charleston, both Bridge Road Bistro and Lola's are regular customers, as is Stardust Café, in Lewisburg.
Monroe Farm Market offers producers a means to market and to distribute their products to a wider audience, she said. As the customer base increases, farmers will increase production of in-demand items and perhaps earn a reasonable living.
"We're hearing from our farmers who want to be full-time farmers. The market can assist them in doing that," Jones said.
Monroe Farm Market offers equal benefits to established farms like Swift Level as it does to Zenith Springs Farm, where owner Jill Young produces lettuces, garlic, shallots, onions and shiitake mushrooms on three acres. Young's day job as Greenbrier County Local Foods Initiative coordinator wouldn't allow her time to market and to sell her produce on her own.
"It's going well. We've increased our sales with Monroe Farm Market. I coordinate with other farmers and grow specialty crops that other producers aren't growing," Young said. She grows peppers for her own use, but doesn't sell them in the market because other producers provide an adequate supply.
Customers seem to appreciate the attention Young and other producers give to providing an interesting variety of locally produced foods, which Frye said makes her job as manager easier. Prospective customers may sign up for two weeks of orders without paying the $80 membership fee.
"How do I attract customers? I just tell them they can sign up for two free trial deliveries and try it and see for themselves," she said. "Until you hold them and eat them yourself, you don't know what they're like."
Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.