Just about every Saturday morning, shoppers flock to the Red Stick Farmers Market in downtown Baton Rouge carrying off bags of satsumas and collards, milk and cream.
But long before the customers show up at 8 a.m., the farmers and the staff of the Big River Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance, which runs the market, have been hard at work.
A good many of the more than 50 member farmers will have trucked in a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and seafood, artisan breads, homemade pies, honey, milk and cheese, native plants, herbs and specialty food items.
Everything filling the bins and tables under the tents has been grown or produced locally. So, while you will find heirloom tomatoes and Creole cream cheese, you won't find bananas or mangoes.
The market has been in operation since 1996 and on Jan. 1 will start a new chapter with the appointment of Darlene Adams Rowland as the alliance's new executive director. She takes over from Copper Alvarez, who is retiring after 19 years in the post.
Rowland is no newcomer to the organization, serving for the past 13 years as the alliance's development director and marketing consultant.
And, like the head of every enterprise in the topsy-turvy pandemic world, she has her work cut out for her.
Primary among her goals, Rowland said, is telling the stories of the hardworking local farmers and specialty companies that show up week after week to bring their goods to the Red Stick Farmers Market, which, in addition to its downtown location, also operates on Tuesdays at the East Baton Rouge Parish Main Library, 7711 Goodwood Blvd., and on Thursdays at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, 6400 Perkins Road.
"I would really love to be able to connect the people more closely with the farmers," said Rowland, who would like to start a campaign enlisting local bloggers and writers to show "who these farmers are, what they grow and how they got there."
It's important to make that connection, she said, because without community support there would be no farmers market. The Big River Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance is a nonprofit organization and doesn't get any support from the government or private sector, she said.
No market could mean the demise of some local growers who depend on the sites to sell their goods.
That's something she didn't realize before she came on board.
"I would go on Saturday morning and think, 'This is great, this is wonderful.' But I didn't really see how much work goes into making that happen every week, everything before the shoppers show up before 8 in the morning," she said.
Another goal: helping local farmers survive and recruiting more to join their ranks.
"While working with the markets, you see the importance of making sure you're always trying to cultivate farmers, because the fact is that nationwide the farmer population is aging," Rowland said. "I really would like to focus on ways to develop young farmers. I think that's definitely a need.
"I think the more diverse products we have at the market the better because it appeals to a larger group of people. And so I'd really like to find ways to connect with the ag centers at both LSU and Southern and find ways we can collaborate to really actually make an impact in helping people who want to farm, find the land and provide the mentoring.
"We've already talked to farmers about that kind of mentoring," she said. "That's something I hope we can put together."
Rowland came to the alliance after working as an account executive for a national mortgage company. She'd been a loyal customer of the Red Stick Farmers Market since college and was looking for a way to get more involved in the community when she learned about the development director position.
"I totally switched gears," she said. "I wanted to be more focused on doing good."
Rowland worked closely with Alvarez for more than a decade and credits the former executive director for growing the farmers markets.
She plans to build on that foundation for the future.
"I don't really want to change anything right off the bat," Rowland said. "I want to meet with our farmers, donors and shoppers and find out what are the needs for our community.
"And I think also that COVID has made us realize how important the farmers market is in local food system. We're connected to the people that grow our food. And while I want to be able to connect us even more, I want to get through COVID.
"So I think the plans are to take a good look and evaluate our program, then hopefully come out on the other side and look at what we can expand on so we can reach more people."
In addition to the three weekly farmers markets, the alliance on occasion runs a mobile farmers market that serves neighborhoods with limited access to fresh food; operates the Main Street Market, an indoor collection of locally owned restaurants and specialty shops; and teaches youngsters about healthy lifestyles through its kids' club called Sprouts.
The markets, closed for the holidays, will return Jan. 9.