Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

Holiday Meals from the Heart of Southside Virginia
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Dec 19, 2012, 13:34

photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Bert Jones is one of the local growers who sells his home grown products year round.

While Santa Claus may fly gifts in from as far away as the North Pole, some things can be found closer to home. The food that makes up a typical Christmas dinner is one of those things.

 With the Petersburg Farmers Market open year round, local cooks in search of chickens, turkeys, beef, pork, pies, candy and vegetables to put on their tables on Christmas day need travel no further than Old Towne Petersburg to buy items nurtured by local soil in nearby counties.

“For shoppers, farmers markets have become a wonderful source for better food,” said Bill Wallace, who manages the Petersburg Farmers Market through the city’s Department of Economic Development. “It’s fresh.”

Wallace said that the food at the market comes fresh from local farms just a few miles away and is picked days or even hours before they appear on tables at the market. Some of the collard greens sold in Petersburg during the chillier months still have frost on them when they’re sold.

“It’s better for you than something that’s been on a truck or a train or the store shelves,” Wallace said.

Although there was a farmers market in Petersburg years ago, Wallace said it was revived in its current incarnation in 2004 as part of the city’s economic development efforts and has proved an effective draw for the downtown area. For the past six years, it has been a year round operation. 

“It’s grown each year to where they have quite a following of customers all winter long,” Wallace said.

The first few weekends in November, after the close of the market’s main season, attracted nine vendors, while last weekend, it had dwindled to six, each with their own specialties and regular customers.

According to at least one of the local growers who brings his vegetables to the market, buying local food is, “a flavor thing.”

That’s how Bert Jones, who sells vegetables grown on his family farm in Dinwiddie County, puts it. In addition to growing his crops organically, he also focuses on older seed varieties.

“The flavors in heirlooms are so much better, because what you buy in the store now, all of the flavor has been bred out for longevity and shipping ability and storage ability,” he said, describing the vegetables he grows and sells at the farmers market. “Old heirlooms had always been bred for flavor. Not for storage or shipping or keeping. It was for flavor.”

Jones, who has been working the same piece of land outside of Petersburg for 35 years on and off, has also spent time working on large farming ventures in places as far away as Dallas.  Now that he’s back at home in Southside Virginia, he’s committed to growing organic produce in a sustainable way from heirloom seeds that can be traced back at least half a century.

“We don’t raise anything that doesn’t trace back over 50 years, and most of it, well over 100,” he said. “I even have some crops that the varieties trace back 200 years.”

He said that naturally grown crops are not just healthier for consumers.

“It’s better for the earth, it’s better for the ground,” he said. “It’s just like my grand daddy always said, you take care of the ground, the ground will take care of you as far as farming.”

While the market hosts a large number of vegetable and fruit vendors in the summer, in the winter, that number shrinks and the items on sale shift to more cold weather varieties. Even in the winter months though, there are still multiple vendors selling greens and other fixings and trimmings for Christmas dinner.

Wayne and Kay Robertson raise chickens and turkeys that might find their way onto many families’ dinner tables on Thanksgiving or Christmas at Cardinal Hill Farm in Dinwiddie.

The couple said that in the last five years, they have seen a “huge increase” in the number of people who visit their booth at the farmers market because they are interested in purchasing local items that are grown without chemical treatments.

“Each year it seems to grow and grow and grow,” Kay Robertson said. “You just have more and more people who are coming to look for natural products.”

But, when it comes to forming the kind of repeat customers who come back time after time through the winter, the driving force is something different.

“What brings them back is the taste,” Wayne Robertson said.

“Just because it’s local, if it doesn’t taste good and it’s not good for you, they’re not coming back,” he added.

The eggs and poultry that the Robertsons sell is free range and natural.

“We use no antibiotics, no hormones or anything,” Wayne said. “We let them live in a manner that’s most suitable to their natural way. Chickens running out eating mealy bugs and worms, they eat frogs, just like what a chicken would have.”

Kerry Giannotti, a farmers market regular who sells the beef he raises on his farm in Dinwiddie and the pork his brother raises on a farm in Roanoke, also made a conscious decision to raise animals in a natural way.

“It just didn’t seem right,” he said, describing some of the practices of large, meat producing businesses use. “To put chemicals in your meat, it just didn’t seem right.”
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Kerry Gionnetti feeds hay to his herd.

Giannotti said observing the practices of larger, more commercial farming operations, that fed their animals grains and injected cattle with steroids and growth hormones, discouraged him from taking that course. He said that some of the other things that are sometimes done to mass produced beef products, a list which includes treating meat with a variety of chemicals, also pushed him in a different direction.

“It just did not make sense to inject chemicals into something I was going to eat for sure, and that’s why it mushroomed form there,” he said, describing how his business developed.

Like the Robertsons’ chickens, Giannotti’s cows, and his brother’s pigs, enjoy a free roaming lifestyle that allows them to feed on organically fertilized grasses.

“All grass, all hay, there’s nothing else to them,” Giannotti said of the 18 head of cattle that roam Dolce Vita farm, which means Sweet Life in Italian. “No grains, no chemicals.”

Giannotti said that the grain based diet many cows are now fed has changed the taste of beef, which tastes different when grass fed.

More than just the staples of a a family feast can be purchased at Petersburg’s farmers market.

Different vendors tend to develop specialty items that draw customers to their booths.

Jones also sells home made pies and candies based on his family’s recipes and pork rolls made the old fashioned way, with boiled ham.

The Roberstons natural honey has been successful for them, as have the goose and duck eggs that they sell in season, from February through May. 

“Geese eggs and duck eggs are the best eggs in the world for baking,” Wayne said, noting that they make baked goods rise more than chicken eggs and have a richer flavor.

He said those eggs are particularly popular with Europeans, many of whom come to the area as spouses of soldiers from Fort Lee.

In addition to winter crops, meat and eggs, visitors to the winter market can also pick up soaps, baked goods and even friends. 

“You develop relationships with your customers,” Wayne Robertson said.

Giannotti has even done things like go on hiking trips with friends he’s made at the market.

“It never hurts to have to have too may friends,” said Giannotti.

Wallace said that connection is part of the market’s appeal.

“It also gives them a connection with the farm, which they like,” he said of customers.

He thinks that farmers markets have saved a number of small farms, giving them a place to sell their goods where individual growers don’t have to compete against large agri-business.

“Quite a few farms in the country have been saved by direct marketing, which is really what this is,” Wallace said. “...This is a niche any small farmer can do.”
photo by Sarah Steele Wilson

Jones, Giannotti, the Roberstsons and a number of other vendors with items customers might need to put together a holiday spread for family and friends will be at the farmers market this Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.

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