More than fresh, local food is on the plate when Jonesborough, Tennessee, hosts its annual farm-to-table dinner. The event takes weeks of planning and combined resources, talents and ideas from several volunteers. Two dinners have raised more than $10,000 for the local farmers’ market.
Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee, snuggled into the lap of the Appalachian Mountains, is known for hosting the National Storytelling Festival. Strewn along Main Street are stepped-gable buildings, historic churches, and other architectural gems that are home to an eclectic mix of eateries and shops. Until a few years ago, though, something was missing; or so thought Curtis Buchanan, longtime Jonesborough resident and noted Windsor chair maker.
“There were a lot of local farmers and producers, even talented bakers and craftspeople. We wanted to give them a place to sell their products and create an awareness of locally grown foods,” Childress says. With seed money from Jonesborough residents and avid gardeners, Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Thatcher, Childress helped organize the farmers’ market; it became a reality in 2008 with eight vendors. By 2012, that number had grown to at least 30 weekly vendors.
For three years, the Jonesborough Farmers’ Market hosted a potluck meal for its growers, but Herman and Beverly Jenkins, owners of the Main Street Cafe, had a greater vision. They’d read an article about Outstanding in the Field, a roving restaurant that prepares farm-to-table dinners outside — in the field so to speak.
“We wanted to do that, but do it downtown,” says Herman Jenkins.
With the help of the Jenkins’ daughter, Breelyn, the Cafe’s catering director, and her husband, Alex Bomba, the Cafe’s chef, a plan began to take root — create a dinner from locally sourced ingredients, sell tickets for a dinner to be held in the middle of Main Street, then donate the proceeds to the farmers’ market.
Months in advance, organizers talked with growers to see what would be in season so Chef Bomba could plan the menu, and Breelyn and other volunteers could work on the logistics.
Since an elegant harvest table — large enough to seat 100 guests — would extend down a major thoroughfare usually teeming with traffic and pedestrians, getting approval from the town fathers had to be top priority. “We’ve always been supportive of local events,” says Town Administrator Bob Browning. “They just make our town a better place.” The streets had to be shut down for hours. Special approval was needed to serve beer and wine. It took some effort, but it all came together.
This was no simple, outdoor meal. It was a sophisticated affair that would have proven challenging in a grand banquet hall. The Jenkins and Bomba families, a volunteer wait staff, and farmers’ market growers and volunteers pulled it off. Chef Bomba managed to create a sumptuous, five-course meal with all the ingredients — not including the risotto and wine — coming from local producers. Even the 48 centerpieces were created from locally sourced flowers.
Even before the meal was over, many were thinking ahead to the next farm dinner. “I’m already looking forward to the (next) event,” Bomba says. “Our purpose is to draw attention to the farmers’ market, and I can think of no better way to do it than to showcase our locally produced foods.”
Thanks to widespread community support, the 2012 dinner was even more successful than the first. Ticket prices increased from $50 to $75, and the number of tickets went from 100 to 155. Still, it sold out within three hours.
Except for minor expenses, everything for the dinner is donated — tables, chairs, beverages, entertainment, innumerable hours — evidence of the generous spirit that has surrounded this event from the beginning.
Karen Childress, one of three volunteer market managers, says, “There is some outside funding for our market, but $10,000 is huge. First, we reimburse our growers who provide food. With the extra money, we’ve offered cash prizes for customers, chef demonstrations, kids’ activities, and we organized a program to accept EBT and debit cards. We’re especially proud to be able to fund some double purchases for food stamp customers.”
Buchanan admitted it’s difficult to measure, but the expanding customer base and annual increase in sales — despite a stagnant economy — tell him they’re making an impact, financially and socially. The social aspect of the farmers’ market is enhanced by live music, which adds an artsy vibe and fair-like atmosphere to the market; the additional funds help pay the performers.
“When people will stand in line, in the rain, to buy tickets, when town fathers grant permission to block off a major street, when businesses and residents wholeheartedly support our farmers’ market, we know we’re doing something right,” Buchanan says.
With sales more than doubling last winter, it seems the market is on track for another successful year.
If a small-town farmers’ market like the one in Jonesborough, Tennessee, can accomplish something this grand, then others can, too. But, only if people are ready to work, eager to have fun, and willing to sit back and enjoy the harvest.
Read more: Growing in number across the country, Farm Restaurants Are All the Rage.