The Forest Farmers Market exists today as a thriving link between local food producers and the surrounding community. But when Founder Dorothy McIntyre moved to the area, she had no intentions of starting a business—just a desire for better food.
“I had no idea whether it would be successful,” McIntyre said about founding the market. “But I figured I was not the only one that wanted local food in the area.”
McIntyre used to be a regular customer at the Community Farmers Market in Lynchburg. But once she moved to the Forest area, she no longer had access to the same high-quality local foods without making a 40-minute round trip drivetrip drive back to the city. So, she decided to call Scott Baker, the area’s Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Agent, to talk about local produce.
“We just kind of started the conversation there,” Baker said.
Baker connected McIntyre with VCE resources to learn more about local agriculture, and helped connect her with local government officials and local farmers. McIntyre eventually held a meeting to determine how much community interest there would be in a local farmers market. It was so well-attended, McIntyre decided to go ahead and start the market with 11 vendors in April 2011, just a year after she had first reached out to Baker.
“We just started and haven’t stopped,” McIntyre said. “This past year the market averaged about 35 vendors.”
The market is open on Saturdays behind the Forest Library. It is open once per month from November to April, and every week during the rest of the year. Despite the pandemic, McIntyre said the market only missed one day last year. McIntyre said she strove to create a safe environment for customers and vendors, and that vendors are outdoors and spaced apart appropriately.
McIntyre said over $400,000 worth of local food had been sold in the market by September in 2020, likely passing $500,000 in sales for the whole year.
As food distribution systems around the country faced disruptions as a result of the pandemic, McIntyre said she thinks some consumers were drawn to local food, hence the market’s healthy numbers during the last year.
Vendor Gavin Sanderlin said online sales have allowed his business to thrive during the last year. Sanderlin runs Sandyfoot Farms with his wife, MeredithMargaret Atthowe. Sandyfoot sends out weekly newsletters to its customers, allowing them to respond with what they need for the week, and pick it up later at the Forest Farmers Market.
These days, much of the produce Sandyfoot brings to the market has already been sold online.
Baker likewise said the pandemic may have driven more consumers to become interested in local food—but that doesn’t mean the trend is just a flash in the pan. Baker also cited United States Department of Agriculture data showing an increase in the value of agricultural products sold directly to consumers in Bedford County from roughly $150,000 in 1997 to $1.2 million in 2017.
For his part, Sanderlin thinks the increased interest in local food comes down to quality. While vegetables available in grocery stores are often grown out of season, Sanderlin explained, leading to an inferior product, vegetables at farmers markets, particularly producer-only markets like McIntyre’s, are typically grown in-season and in better conditions, and consumers can taste the difference.
“If you’re getting very good-quality food, and you stop eating lesser-quality foods, you have a really hard time going back,” Sanderlin said.
Whatever the cause of the market’s growth, it’s led to a wide-ranging, high-quality selection of fresh food.
Everything from fresh meats and produce to other items like pasta, breads, jams and jellies, cookies, sauces, spice rubs, dog treats and more are available at the market.
Kelly Lutes-Paxton, owner of Sweet Batches, a company that sells dog treats, started as a vendor at the Forest Farmers Market last Summer. Sweet Batches offers a variety of “cookie cutter bags” with holiday-themed dog treats, in addition to other products. The company is also hosting a fundraiser next month for the Yellow Branch Challengers, a local group puts together sports leagues for children with autism, and regularly works with Paws of Honor, an organization that provides veterinary treatment for former military and police dogs.
Lutes-Paxton said she is grateful for the opportunity to sell her treats at the market.
“She just really sets you on the right foot,” Lutes-Paxton said about working with McIntyre.
McIntyre said her favorite part of running the market has been watching the vendors grow their businesses, along with customers growing in their understanding of local agriculture.
“There’s a lot that goes into the local food system that you don’t always think about,” McIntyre said.
McIntyre said she is grateful to Bedford County and to the Bedford Community Health Foundation for their support of her market.
Vendors at the market generally accept cash, checks and cards. Vendors also accept SNAP payments, which McIntyre is able to match, thanks to grant money provided by the Bedford Community Health Foundation. Some vendors also accept Venmo, PayPal or Apple Pay.
Regardless of their payment methods, McIntyre’s customers not only know where theirthere food is coming from, but also who their money is going to.
“The money stays within your community,” McIntyre said. “And it strengthens the community.”
The Forest Farmers Market will be open on April 10 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. The market will be open weekly starting on April 24 from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. with standard COVID protocols in place.
Correction: a previous version of this article used an incorrect name for the co-owner of Sandyfoot Farms, Meredith Atthowe.