Charlotte Tolley Has Made the Market Square Farmers’ Market —and Local Food — Wildly Popular Again

In Cover Stories, Food & Drink by Chris Barrett1 Comment

Market2Shawn Poynter

It’s the first Saturday of May at Market Square, not quite 8:30 a.m. The sunlight is still horizontal and shadows are long. There is an air of not-unpleasant chaos as farmers and food vendors and sundry volunteers hustle to prepare for day one of the 12th year of the Market Square Farmers’ Market. You can smell coffee and breakfast offered by both food trucks and resident restaurants, as well as cut flowers and the tang of fecund dirt and clay still clinging to roots unearthed maybe an hour or two earlier. The market is not even open yet and Market Square and adjacent environs already contain more people than most farm-dwellers are able to be comfortable around.

Welcome to Crazy Town.

“The farmers’ market has just exploded in the last couple years,” says Charlotte Tolley, who along with others helped to conceive the market in 2003. “For the first five years we were begging people to come. The next five years were good, manageable growth. Now it’s just crazy town. We have waiting lists for all of our vendors. We have to be more stringent about everything that we do. And downtown, when we started 12 years ago, no one gave a crap what we did. Most of the buildings were empty.”

Determinist mathematician Edward Lorenz theorized in the 1970s that, presuming certain initial conditions, a butterfly could flap its wings and across some span of time and space cause tornadoes. That butterfly might have been named Charlotte. Tolley is soft-spoken, thoughtful and articulate, slim and tall yet somehow still diminutive. If she is on the bus or among those in the elevator with you now, you might not notice her. But she gets things done and makes things happen, most often as an orchestrator and collaborator or person who makes sensible suggestions. Thank or blame her for this mob scene.

Several of the sellers on hand this morning were here when the market launched in 2004, following a fall and winter of planning. They seem both proud and bemused to be asked to consider the growth that they have witnessed and caused. Adrienne Gibson and her family own A Place of the Heart Farm in Pioneer, Tenn., north of Knoxville. Gibson was approached by Tolley after her farm began supplying produce to Three Rivers Market. A Place of the Heart’s booth has some early seasonal produce, but Gibson says the primary product she’d like to move today is CSA subscriptions.

Adrienne Gibson of A Place of the Heart Farm in Pioneer, Tenn.Shawn Poynter

Adrienne Gibson of A Place of the Heart Farm in Pioneer, Tenn.

“One of the things that I think is helping the farmers’ market is that it’s part of a movement,” observes Gibson. “Those things tend to happen out west and then move this way. Now it’s happening here and I feel like that kind of a movement comes from a younger crowd. Charlotte was that person, and she has the right personality to do it. She’s kind and she’s fair, but she doesn’t let people walk all over her. She hustles, but in a mellow and gentle way. It’s really quite awesome. I think she believes in what she’s doing.”

Adam Cottrill refers to himself as Farm Boss at Spring Creek Farm, in Elk Valley, Tenn. Spring Creek Farm and A Place of the Heart Farm are neighbors up in the wilds of rural East Tennessee, and at Market Square Farmers’ Market, where their booths are nearly adjacent. He started selling at the market in 2005.

“To be honest, she was pretty uptight at the beginning,” Cottrill says of Tolley. “She’s a lot more open-minded and easy going now. She’s done so much since then, and she’s had to deal with a lot of people. She’s more understanding of the farmers and everybody else. Farmers are a fringe group to begin with. There are a lot of gray areas. Charlotte has done a good job of helping the vendors and the customers and the city understand what’s required and what the rules are.”

At its launch in May of 2004, the MSFM featured 10 vendors.

Adam Cottrill of Spring Creek Farm, in Elk Valley, Tenn. Shawn Poynter

Adam Cottrill of Spring Creek Farm, in Elk Valley, Tenn.

“We had a lot of media attention about a farmers’ market coming back to Market Square, and people did come out,” Tolley recalls. “And more than one of those people told me things like, ‘I thought this was supposed to be a big deal.’ We definitely did not meet expectations. It really does amaze me. The sad thing for me is that I hardly ever get to shop on Saturdays anymore.”

The MSFM has become so successful today that it’s experiencing the sort of growing pains its originators may have only been dreamed of at the market’s start. It now typically hosts over 120 vendors on any given Saturday (plus a smaller number on Wednesdays), drawing thousands of shoppers to the Square and its adjoining streets for a festival of tamales, gourmet dog biscuits, gluten-free baked goods, and homemade ice pops, not to mention street performers, potters, and jewelry designers. But it’s also spurred a mini-industry of local growers and food providers that hearkens to an earlier era in Knoxville’s food history.

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Market1Shawn Poynter

Market Square was established before the Civil War on donated land, and farmers parked wagons from which they sold produce and other objects not dissimilar to what’s for sale today. A Market House, no longer standing, housed Union soldiers and Knoxville City Hall over various spells. Intermittently, the Square has functioned as the center of town, which it very much seems to be today and on other days when MSFM is open.

Jack Neely, author of the 2009 book Market Square: A History of the Most Democratic Place on Earth and executive director of the Knoxville History Project (as well as a contributing editor to the Knoxville Mercury), can scarcely contain his delight while discussing the subject of a populated Market Square.

“It’s been really gratifying to see the resurgence of the farmers’ market on Market Square,” says Neely. “That’s what it was founded for in 1854. I always thought that that was an important thing to preserve but I’m just amazed by how well it’s come back. Honestly, it’s better than it’s been in my lifetime, now. You might say it’s better now than it has been for most of its history.

“I think Charlotte Tolley and her allies did a lot—young, idealistic people, who came in with this idea of having a farmers’ market just for local farmers. It brought this back around and had an energy and somehow caught on to a national zeitgeist. People were ready for this. They want something like this. And there it was.”

Like others, Neely thinks Tolley’s personality made her uniquely suited for this particular task.

“Charlotte’s a great combination—a really rare combination—of organization, even temper, and ideas,” he says. “Usually you have the genius who can’t keep things together or someone who gets angry about everything. This requires a lot of organization and a lot of staying cool under pressure and she’s good at all those things. Her combination of talents brought this together. She was just a kid when she started this, 23 years old or so.”

Tolley came to Knoxville from Memphis to attend the University of Tennessee, where she studied fine arts from 1997 to 2001. She says that the only direct contribution of her studies to the work she’s done for the market was a brief digression into architecture, which provided some skills and gear that helped her generate preliminary layouts. Alongside the burgeoning farmers’ market, Tolley was part owner of the downtown market Just Ripe. (She says her role in that endeavor involved mostly providing support and encouragement for partner Kristen Faerber.) Just Ripe changed hands earlier this year.

Tolley is aware of the current localism shopping and dining trend that finally found its way to Knoxville from points west. And while she has professed a fondness for preservation and was aware of Market Square’s history, her inspiration predates both by several centuries.

“I love downtown spaces,” she says. “I spent some time in London and visited a lot of those outdoor markets that happen in old squares and I just loved the way they enlivened those spaces.”

Tolley has accomplished in Knoxville the sort of feats typically associated with activism or entrepreneurship. She doesn’t think either label would apply.

“During the first Obama campaign they kept referring to him as a community organizer,” says Tolley. “I thought, ‘Maybe that’s what I am.’

“I’d probably say that if I knew what I was getting into, I wouldn’t have done it. I like the organization part. I like how you can figure something out by looking at it as a whole. And I really like trying to help. I’m not comfortable being perceived in a leadership role. I’m actually not very comfortable with people, but I’ve gotten better at it. I like being outside. I like physically doing things that seem tangible. I really like the actual setting up and breaking down of the market and being at market.”

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Charlotte_Tolley_0528Shawn Poynter

Tolley is quick to share credit for the market’s success.

“Art Carmichael has been here since then beginning, and is a tireless volunteer for the Saturday markets,” she says. “We couldn’t have done it without him. To start the market, the original Market Square District Association board did a lot of legwork to get things off the ground.”

Many people reflexively give that shared credit back.

“I would give a lot of credit to her personality and leadership,” says Bill Lyons, chief of policy and deputy to Mayor Madeline Rogero.

Lyons was a member of the Haslam administration in 2003 and has been involved in implementing the city’s official encouragement of MSFM as well as many of the progressive changes downtown that have facilitated the market and its growth. In particular, he mentions the Market Square Garage, which dates from that era, and the policy of free parking on nights and weekends downtown. He’s  also quick to remind readers of the crucial role played by private development and investment downtown, which has made possible a relatively affluent loft-living, farmers’ market-shopping community.

“She is very effective,” he says. “And though she has a very pleasing personality, and is very easy to talk to, she’s also quite persistent and has made good cases for what she’s asking. There were a lot of incremental steps involved”—closing streets and expanding the market into Market Street are his examples—“that weren’t necessarily complete no-brainers at the time. She went a step at a time. She was very dedicated and it was clear that the success of the farmers’ market was key to her. What she wanted might brush up against some other interests or perceived interests but the way she dealt with it was always very effective.”

Various offices track and forecast the effects of local economic phenomena like MSFM. But it’s simpler to ask the business owners who feel that their businesses owe some measure of their success to the market. The Cottrills at Spring Creek Farm sold only overflow from their own kitchen garden during their first year here. They have since built out a certified kitchen for processing and preserving foods. Now they are in the process of building new greenhouses (for a total of four) and have been hiring apprentice labor to supply demand for their goods.

VG’s Bakery (with bricks, mortar, and ovens at the Kohls shopping center in Farragut) is a founding vendor. Owner Dave Gwin typically mans the booth, but today he is working as a volunteer at the Veggie Valet service along Wall Street. It’s a hat-check variation that allows shoppers to leave large loads in the care of high-schoolers while they fetch the car.

“The market has been great for the bakery,” says Gwin. “Eleven years ago the bakery was at a make-or-break point in the business. The market has allowed us to reach new people every week. Now we sell at nine different markets in the area.”

Like most people involved, Gwin makes little distinction between the beneficence of the market and Tolley, its public face. 

“She’s still young now, but when she started this she really was just a girl,” he recalls. “People make mistakes, and some of the vendors she brought in back in those early days were mistakes. But she’s learned from those mistakes. I’ve been to a lot of farmers’ markets and hers is one of the very best.”

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Charlotte_Tolley_0553Shawn Poynter

Tolley now leads a new non-profit called Nourish Knoxville—the third non-profit under which MSFM has operated. Growth and popularity have allowed for the addition of some objectives, such as an annually published local food guide and a winter market, both of which have been notably successful twice. A couple weeks before opening day, Nourish Knoxville launched its 2015 local food guide at an open house event that it shared with the Knoxville Center for Urban Agriculture, on the campus of Knoxville Botanical Gardens. Nourish Knoxville rents office space at the gardens.

“Nourish Knoxville exists,” Tolley says, “to connect East Tennesseans to food grown in East Tennessee.”

Tolley gives credit for the formation of Nourish Knoxville to its founding board, John Schmid, Forrest Kirkpatrick, Amy Hubbard, Paige Travis and Connie Whitehead. Kirkpatrick is present at the food guide launch. An architect and furniture designer, he studied architecture with Tolley and has known her for some years.

Kirkpatrick says that he and others from Nourish Knoxville have been meeting with the mayor’s office to discuss the coming season.

“We’re on their events calendar,” Kirkpatrick says. “The market is not an event. It’s a space. It’s a space with a lot of value.”

Restaurateur Matt Gallaher, owner and chef at Knox Mason, is also on the board of Nourish Knoxville. Gallaher says MSFM influenced the location where he chose to open his restaurant. He sources ingredients at the market himself. Anything you see him lugging away from market will soon appear on his menu.

“It’s an anchor for activity downtown, so I wanted to be close to it,” he says. “The Market Square Farmers’ market is the best farmers’ market in the region. I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve been to farmers’ markets in Vancouver and Halifax, Nova Scotia, Los Angeles. It’s just amazing that we have this in Knoxville, honestly.

“Charlotte insists that everything is homemade or homegrown. There are some Saturdays when you want a bottle of water, you’re thirsty, and it’s not an option. I appreciate that. It keeps the quality and integrity of the market.

“I admire her. I hang all of the success of the market on her. She’s been the driving force and she hasn’t compromised. She’s grown it into something that is truly unique.”

Also present at the food guide event is Tootsie’s food truck, serving tacos as a special. Tolley snacks from a small serving of side dishes, and recommends them at every opportunity. She preaches patronage for a living, alas, and it is entirely possible that she’s not the least bit hungry.

“People often assume I love to cook,” Tolley says. “I don’t love to cook, I love to eat delicious food that makes me feel good. Eating seasonally means making your ingredients shine. You don’t have to do much to make it taste good. I’m a very lazy cook.”

Growth is great except, of course, for when it isn’t. There is the demonstrated demand for more MSFM, but there’s no clear solution as to how that might be supplied.

“There is a farmers’ market every day of the week in Knoxville during the growing season,” says Tolley. “So we’re probably not going to open on another day. We have no desire to expand our footprint. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. This is an infrastructure-building year.”

Market3Shawn Poynter

One result of block-buster attendance has been the decision to begin restricting attendees. Tolley is braced for lots of push-back on MSFM’s decision to establish dog-free zones in the center aisles down Market Square and down Market Street.

“We’ve had dogs that bite,” she says. “They’re not the cleanest. And they feel free to relieve themselves whenever it’s convenient, and sometimes they do that on vendors’ tablecloths or coolers. And of course once something gets peed on by a dog, it gets peed on repeatedly. And it gets really hot and the dogs want shade so they try to get under tables and that becomes dangerous.”

But, beyond complaints on social media, implementation of the dog-free zones has gone smoothly for the market’s first two Saturday events.

So what’s next for Tolley herself? She becomes quiet and pensive when asked to imagine what all of this might be leading her toward. Then she smiles.

“I’m the executive director of a non-profit for the first time,” Tolley says. “That’s really exciting. And really boring—it’s mostly filling out forms.

“But it’s my job to make sure that this organization is capable of functioning with me or without me”—she shrugs, perhaps at the concept of impermanence—“which it’s going to have do some day.”


Chris Barrett
Contributing Writer

Chris Barrett's Shelf Life alerts readers to new arrivals at the Lawson McGhee Library's stellar Sights and Sounds collection, along with recommendations and reminders of staples worthy of revisiting. He is a former Metro Pulse staff writer who’s now a senior assistant at the Knox County Public Library.

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