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Charleston Farmers Market returns to Marion Square with limited vendors, buyers

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A rainbow of tents and fresh, seasonal vegetables returned Saturday morning to Marion Square for the first time this year but without the usual accompanying jump castles, food trucks and live music. 

The Charleston Farmers Market was back at the central downtown location from 8 a.m. to noon in an essentials-only format driven by the coronavirus pandemic, which diluted the typically bustling event.

Instead of stretching kitty-corner from the fountain on King Street to the bicycle rack on Meeting Street and featuring a variety of 85 to 115 vendors, the market included just seven farm vendors and a limited capacity to 250 browsers at a time along Tobacco Street. 

The brick avenue that stretches perpendicular to Meeting and King streets housed hand sanitizer stations on either end, with one-way traffic and mask mandates being enforced. In its limited format, a steady flow of approximately 1,200 attendees still made their way through during the four hours of operation, according to Farmers Market Coordinator Harrison Chapman. 

Chapman found himself in an unprecedented situation while navigating the new farmers market format these past few months. 

"The way we have things set up right now is designed for people to come pick up their produce and leave," he said. "It's the absolute opposite of what I've been doing over the last eight years, where I was always trying to keep people longer." 

He's worked with a special safety task force and the city of Charleston to plan out the configuration. 

Mayor John Tecklenburg and his wife, Sandy, purchased seven red potatoes from Joseph Fields Farms around 9 a.m. 

"The produce looks delicious, it looks great," said the mayor, who was carrying a bag full of fresh finds. "I mean did you see those vegetables? Everything looks so good." 

He said that the city would continue to expand the market and get it back to where it was before.

"We've just got to do it safely," he added. 

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The Charleston Farmers Market opened as an essentials-only market in Marion Square on Saturday, Sept. 26. Mayor John Tecklenburg (center background) attended and purchased some vegetables from vendors. Kalyn Oyer/Staff

For some of the featured farmers, this wasn't their first time selling at the Charleston Farmers Market this year. A few participated in an even smaller essentials-only market on Wednesday evenings in the Joe Riley Jr. Stadium parking lot. 

Those markets were mostly a bust because of the new location with less foot traffic, time of week and stormy weather. 

"It rained almost every single Wednesday except the last one," Chapman said. "The weather was not doing us any favors." 

Joseph Fields was already itching for a longer stint at Marion Square as the gates opened at 8 a.m. Saturday. 

"We need six hours, at least, and traffic going both ways, not just one," said Fields, who was selling baskets of tomatoes, squash, okra and collards, among other fresh finds.

Chapman said the one-way route was developed to ensure 6-foot social distancing between parties and to control crowds. 

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Maria Denaro of Tiverton Farms set up fresh vegetables for the Charleston Farmers Market, which opened as an essentials-only market in Marion Square on Saturday, Sept. 26. Kalyn Oyer/Staff

Maria Denaro of Tiverton Farms in Moncks Corner, known for their unique herb and spice blends, said she missed not only the business that the market generates but also the camaraderie with other vendors who have become her family. 

Luckily for Denaro, who is on voluntary leave as a flight attendant and only a part-time grower and seller, refurbishing an in-progress brick-and-mortar store has been her focus during the pandemic. The farm's online sales of non-perishables have also been plentiful; her customers are often tourists who first discovered her booth in Marion Square while visiting and then later made repeat purchases. 

Rebecca Bills of R&R Acres in the Francis Marion National Forest was selling honey and fresh shrimp, though the attraction of the day at her booth was her daughter Trinity's bearded dragon, Lemon, who was receiving plenty of pets between hand sanitizer pumps. 

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Trinity Bills, whose mother Rebecca runs R&R Acres, lets Charleston Farmers Market browsers pet her bearded dragon, Lemon. Kalyn Oyer/Staff

Bills said though the smaller setup might not be what people were used to, it was vital to the independent business owners like her who are trying to support their families. 

"I'm really missing the crafters and artisans," Bills said. "There are a lot of small businesses not being supported by the city right now that I hope will be soon." 

Chapman said that prepared food vendors and artisans would be assessed for future markets but were not considered essential currently. A holiday market for those vendors is being planned. 

Farrah Ibraham, who was staying at The Dewberry hotel across the street while visiting from Alabama, said she usually tries to find a farmers market wherever she travels and this one was a delight with its variety of fresh fruits. She bought some blackberries and peaches to snack on during her roadtrip to Asheville later in the day. 

Market frequenters like Charleston resident Lee Tawes were ready for the Marion Square return. Tawes said he felt safe in the spaced-out outdoor location "as long as everybody follows the rules."

"It's much safer and more practical than any Walmart will ever be," Bills of R&R Acres said. 

Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.

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