Church, MU student group partner for farmers market

Monday, August 31, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
After hearing that the Tigers for Community Agriculture would be selling watermelons next week, Chester Edwards reminisces about when he helped harvest watermelons growing up in southern Indiana. Tigers for Community Agriculture teamed up with Martz Farm and Olivet Christian Church to set up a farmer's market.

COLUMBIA — A partnership between an MU student group and a Columbia church to offer a neighborhood farmers market has encouraged a renewed camaraderie in the church's rural community.

Every Thursday this summer, Tigers for Community Agriculture and Martz Farm offered fresh produce and friendly faces at Olivet Christian Church, 1991 S. Olivet Road. The market has strengthened the church's ties to its rural roots and has built a positive relationship between Olivet and the university community.

Upcoming Tigers for Community Agriculture events

On Wednesday, Sept. 9, Tigers for Community Agriculture is sponsoring a seminar on the incorporation of local produce into MU Campus Dining Services.  The seminar will be held at 3:3o p.m. at the fifth-floor conference room in the Bond Life Sciences Center.

On Wednesday, Sept. 23, the group will co-sponsor a screening of the movie "Fresh" in Gwynn Hall at MU at 4 p.m.

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The student group was created under the leadership of Andrew Van Engelenhoven, 36, of Fulton. Tigers for Community Agriculture currently has 10 members, and four are involved in the farmers market project. Despite minimal enrollment, the students took on a hearty project, which began as the brainchild of Fred Martz, 74, of Columbia. Martz teaches sustainable agriculture at MU.

Van Engelenhoven, a senior majoring in general agriculture at MU, picked up on Martz’s idea for students to create a community-sustained agriculture program, or CSA, and ran with it. Martz is his mentor.

"We had to answer the question 'Can you grow food?' " Van Engelenhoven said. "And not just 'Can you grow food?' but 'Can you grow food consistently?' "

The student group bought its own seed but used the equipment and land at the MU-owned Bradford Farm for its gardens. The goal was to grow enough produce to sell prepaid subscriptions to Olivet members, but university liability and hiring issues forced Van Engelenhoven and his colleagues to find another way to carry out their business plan.

Instead of offering a CSA, they decided to use a cash-and-carry plan, and this spring the group offered its first farmers market. The final market of the season is Thursday.

In February, the students began planting the seeds in greenhouse containers. In March, they put the seed transplants in hoop houses, which are similar to greenhouses but allow for in-ground planting and have no supplemental heat source. The 2009 harvest season required about three to five hours of work a day, five days a week, so the time commitment was high for the students.

"There were times when we couldn't harvest everything," said Whitney Middleton, 21, of Novinger, "and we couldn't get the extra help we needed."

About the time that student group was planting its first fruit and vegetable seeds, the Olivet congregation began looking for ways to maintain and enhance its rural visibility in the community. Martz, an Olivet member, facilitated the partnership between the student group and church.

"We try to keep it quaint, where everybody knows your name," Martz said of the farmers market. Church members and nonmembers alike have enjoyed shopping at the Olivet market.

"I had two bags of these (tomatoes), and I'm tellin' ya, they're delicious," Katie Kane said during her second visit to the market. "I'm havin' a wonderful time here." Kane is not an Olivet member, but she used to live in the house across from the original Olivet meeting place, which still remains on the church's property.

One of the first customers to arrive for the penultimate sale of the season was Chester Edwards, 68, who donned some colorful suspenders that held up a pair of baggy denim pants. "When you live in a rural community, it's very close knit, and there are a fair number of farmers in the congregation."

Edwards and his wife, Vonda, of Columbia, have been members of Olivet since 1968. "The church feeds people, and we happened to come here on feeding day," Edwards said of the couple's first visit to Olivet. The church has "always been a family congregation."

That could have something to do with why customers visit the Olivet farmers market — not only to purchase fresh, healthy foods but also to interact with its companionable sellers. Van Engelenhoven, knowledgeable and engaging, welcomes customers on a weekly basis, and Middleton completes the market's good customer service with her quiet and sincere demeanor.

Although the produce selection varies from week to week, the Aug. 27 menu included standard red and green tomatoes; several varieties of cherry tomatoes, peppers and zucchini; and two varieties of eggplant. For those who aren't partial to eggplant, Van Engelenhoven recommends trying the much milder Rosa Bianca variety.

"Black tomatoes are my favorite," Van Engelenhoven said. Named more for the exterior than the color of the fruit's flesh, black tomatoes have purplish-black skin and tend to be richer in taste than other varieties.

Beef, lamb and eggs are also available for purchase from Martz Farm. Owned by Fred Martz's son and daughter-in-law, Kevin and Fay Martz, the farm is the only other vendor at the Olivet market.

When asked if the market will continue next year, Van Engelenhoven said, "We're focusing on enrollment now; it's not sustainable if I'm holding it up." He has plans to attend graduate school and hopes to continue helping with the project. In the future, Tigers for Community Agriculture also hopes to provide food to those in need living in Columbia's First Ward.

"You don't build these things overnight," Fred Martz said.

For now, Tigers for Community Agriculture plans to begin its second farmers market season next spring at Olivet.

The group's last sale of the year, with watermelons and possibly cantaloupes, is from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday.

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