When it comes down to it, there are basically two different kinds of folks who sell at farmers markets.
The first are the farmers and vendors who arrive each week and silently set up their booth or stall, keeping quietly to themselves. As soon as market is over, they quickly break down their tent, load up the truck, and drive out of market without a waive or a goodbye. This sequence is repeated month after month, year after year. For all intents and purposes, this first type of vendor often remains a stranger to his fellow farmers.
The second type of vendor is the one for whom market each week is like a mini family reunion, a chance to briefly socialize and catch up on the week’s events, an opportunity to take a breath from the hard work of production, and say hello. Amongst this second group there is a genuine sense of community and affection, a brother and sisterhood of mutual respect and consideration. It’s a sort of weekly acknowledgement of the toil and sacrifice that goes into getting all that food to farmers market in the first place, not to mention the four hour circus of sales, the blur of customers, and the general farmers market mayhem that ensues.
I’ve always felt a deep kinship with this second group of farmers. I have an almost ritualistic moment each weekend where I make sure that all my agricultural peers have arrived safely that morning, watching for late arrivals out of the corner of my eye. We’re very much like a tribe, or an extended family; we’re able to discuss subjects that are totally foreign to other people, the esoterica of tractor repairs, the nuance of health department regulations, and long-haired WOOFers who come and go in the night. It’s a quirky family, full of odd characters, but like most other families, we have to live with the one we’ve got.
Because of the emotion tied into these farmers market friendships, it’s especially painful when a fellow producer passes away, as happened with Jimmy Hogge of Buster’s Seafood on March 5th. Jimmy was very much one of our own; a commercial fisherman and true direct marketer, who personally caught and hand processed everything he sold, trucking it himself to farmers market each week. Folks, you don’t get much closer to your food than that, unless you renew your fishing license, and go buy yourself a boat.
Over the past few years, I felt a real admiration for this old waterman, and would visit with him and his wife Paige at market whenever I had the chance. They always brought a magnificent display of freshly caught fish, oysters and crabs, and were a perfect addition to our “producers only” regional farmers markets. Hardly a month passed without them making some small improvement, whether a more attractive ice display, a more efficient truck, or, as was recently unveiled, a new logo and sign. Despite Jimmy being 68 years old, he and Paige were always trying to improve.
As a free-range livestock farmer, I’m not able to get away from dry land very often. So, when Jimmy agreed to take me out on the water on an expedition to harvest fresh oysters, I immediately set the date. On January 17th, my friend Garrett and I went out on the open water with Jimmy, and spent the morning watching him work, scooping up fresh, fat oysters off the bottom of the Rappahannock River with a large steel claw that dragged behind the boat. Enjoying a few of those plump oysters at 7 o’clock in the morning is a memory I won’t soon forget.
Afterwards, Jimmy showed us several of his fishing awards, as well as paintings of his boats over the years, before inviting me back to go rock fishing and crabbing later that season. I promised him I would. Driving back home, I was already looking forward to it. Sadly, that day will never come.
Most of my fellow vendors at farmers markets are so much more than just people I happen to see each week, or politely acknowledge. They are like brothers and sisters, the kind of people who stay with you through the hard times, and are the first to celebrate life’s little triumphs with you. These local producers are amongst the finest people anywhere to be found, resilient and reliable, with boundless energy and a deep commitment to growing the best food possible.
Jimmy Hogge certainly fit this description, and he will be deeply missed. In another life, I could have seen myself as his apprentice, learning the secrets of the oyster beds, the seasonal running of the rock fish, and the finest ways to trick a crab into a pot. I would have loved to gone out onto the water with him one more time. For me, he’ll always remain a part of my extended family.