For 35 years, Allen Scharf has been doing the exact same thing every Saturday morning: waking up before any sensible rooster would so he can get to the farmers’ market in Soulard to set up. In the pre-dawn hours it’s difficult to see the sign above the northern hall’s roof – the one boasting of the market’s existence for 199 years prior to Scharf and his eponymous farm even entering the picture – but it’s there. And so is Scharf’s team, each one organizing, weighing and packaging in preparation for the coming storm.
In the semi-darkness that can only, and most accurately, be described as 4:30 in the morning, Scharf and crew continue to set up shop, a 40-foot long wooden altar that displays, quite literally, the fruits of their labor. Tomatoes, berries, peppers, potatoes – a cascading sea of sustenance appears with blinding speed as Scharf drinks his coffee and eyes his surroundings for detritus and debris. It is, after all, still the weekend in Soulard.
“There’s a lot of prep that goes into what we do,” Scharf explains about the workload that comes with renting a stall in the oldest market west of the Mississippi since 1978. If we’re not ready by 6:30, we’re in trouble.”
On most Saturdays at the market, Scharf can tell when it’s 6:30am because his regulars are, well, regularly there right at 6:30am. To be more specific, they regularly start coming at 6:30am and don’t stop until around 3:00 in the afternoon.
“The old joke is you can’t get married on a Saturday if you’re a Soulard [Farmers Market] person,” Scharf chuckles. “Of course, we make an exception for our kids.”
Scharf might make exceptions for his children, but part of that reason might be because if one of them were to get married, there would be no one to run the stand. Seemingly everyone working at the Scharf stall is either family or damn close. Scharf’s cousin, Cheryl, oversees one section; Scharf’s son, Alex, is overseeing another; and Scharf’s college roommate, Mike, runs the middle.
Scharf’s stand is broken up into three main sections: the far side contains the vegetables, the center contains the fruit, and the Northern-most side, on this day, contains flowers. Every weekend brings new and fresh products. And as customers flock from every direction, fingers pointing and money extended, Cheryl, Alex, Mike and Allen all scramble around each other in the four-foot-wide alley of space that sits between the stand and Scharf’s produce trucks.
Certainly, if you’ve been to the Soulard Farmers Market, you’ve seen firsthand the throngs of people, the crush of carts and kids as you do your best to slalom through the madness. As Scharf recalls, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, as many as 10,000 warm bodies came through the market on a single Saturday. Today there aren’t nearly as many people as in years past, a result of a multitude of changes that have occurred to the surrounding cityscape. And while there might not be 10,000 people here now, it certainly feels like it.
“I have no idea how many people I serve on a Saturday,” Scharf says, laughing. “It’s definitely in the hundreds; hundreds and hundreds of people.”
Because there are no aisles, no flashing lane signs or self-scan checkouts at the farmers’ market, customers must police themselves as to who is next. It’s more difficult than you’d think, especially when the crowd gets three or more deep and the person in front still hasn’t decided between the red or green peppers. As a result, customers simply shout out their orders, vying for the attention of one of Scharf’s people. Somehow in the flurry, everyone gets waited on.
In the beginning, Soulard Farmers Market was almost solely farmers; family upon family running the individual eight-foot sections that represented their week’s work. Today, the market has changed; becoming this amalgamation of grocer meets bazaar meets food court. And one of the reasons Scharf’s stall is so busy is because they are one of the truly legitimate farms in the market. What this means is a natural agility to respond to their customers. If there’s an appropriate demand, given enough time, they can more than likely grow the supply.
“I don’t understand kale,” Scharf says, smiling, as he makes an example of the popular super green. “Personally, I can’t stand it, but people started asking for it, and I knew that I could grow it. So now, we have kale.”
People have come to expect certain things from Scharf and his stand at the Soulard market. One woman, walking by briskly, calls out, “do you have any asparagus left?”
“Unfortunately, no,” Scharf replies, frowning, “asparagus season is pretty much over; I sold the last of it last week.”
“I figured as much,” the woman says, as she keeps walking. “But I thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
Throughout the day, Scharf’s clientele makes their stops – some for product, others just to say hello. There are the super regulars: the men and women who come armed to the teeth with their polyester and canvas totes to pick up an entire week’s worth of groceries. There are the food nerds: the ones who come, attracted by signage proclaiming the farm’s lineage in Millstadt, Ill., sniffing and prodding through the bushels of goods that Scharf offers. And then there are the bargain-hunters: the individuals who try to come by late in the day to prey for deals, knowing full well that the options for the farmer are to either sell it cheap or pack it up and take it home.
“We have a very diverse client base here,” Scharf notes proudly. “Every type of person known to mankind comes to Soulard on a Saturday.”
During the busy months, Saturdays at the Soulard Farmers Market are insanity for Scharf Farms; so much so that the crew actually uses its Thursdays and Fridays – days that they are also selling at the market – to prepare for Saturdays and its crowds. But in the late afternoons of those Saturdays, once the regulars and foodies and bargain-hunters go home, Allen Scharf and his family of staffers do what they’ve done for 35 years, and what farmers before them did for hundreds of years: load up what remains of their wares and head home. And while the new vendors of Soulard Farmers Market, the wholesalers and restaurateurs and purse-slingers, packing up alongside, might give pause to other farmers, Allen Scharf takes it all in stride.
“The market’s changed over the years, and we’ll continue to change with it,” he says. “There are some wonderful, hardworking, friendly people who make up the merchants here. You have to be – you won’t last long in Soulard if you’re not.”