Blacksburg in autumn is the stuff of myths. The crisp Virginia air crackles souls into awakening. The cerulean sky is a backdrop for the vibrant maroon, orange, and yellow leaves that dance off branches into the breeze. Backpack-clad students meander across the Virginia Tech Drillfield, encircled by scholarly, limestone buildings. To this day, the slightest crispness in the air snaps me back to the golden, autumn days of Blacksburg and places a distinct longing in my heart for flannel shirts, puffy down vests, bluegrass music, a beer from The Cellar, and my Hokie family.
Ten years ago, crunchy leaves swirled around my head as I wedged my thumbs under the shoulder straps of my backpack. I was a Freshman, and I was ready to wander. Years later I would desire to wander the world. But on that simple Wednesday afternoon, wandering down a quaint, tree-lined street of downtown Blacksburg was enough. I’m always grateful for when things feel like enough. I had noticed that a street near campus was closed to traffic, and the white tents that had popped up piqued my curiosity. I sauntered between the stands, passing tables of fall vegetables, homemade cheese, and local honey. It was my first Farmers Market; and I was enthralled. I couldn’t believe that all of these people smiling pleasantly behind tables covered with a myriad of goods were showcasing things they had grown or made with their own two hands. Each of their unique passions and skills flooded down West Roanoke Street and washed over me. I knew I wanted to buy something- to be a part of this homegrown fairytale. A yellow squash, tomatoes, or anything that needed to be cooked wouldn’t do (dorm living has its limitations). As I approached the end of the tunnel of tents, I noticed the last table was surrounded by buckets of colorful flowers. I tentatively touched the delicate petals and asked the lean, quiet man guarding his flowers what kind they were. He replied, “Dahlias”. I bought one large dahlia with a crinkled dollar bill. I thanked the Dahlia Man and ambled home in awe. There was magic in the Blacksburg air that day.
Growing up, all I knew about my food was that it came from Food Lion. I knew that it was grown by some farmer somewhere, but the farm to table concept felt vague and removed from my reality. People didn’t grow their own food, they bought it wrapped, packaged, and prepared from the grocery store. The closest I had ever come to farming was devoting myself to a scrawny strawberry patch in my side yard the summer before sixth grade. I dreamed of being a pioneer girl homesteading during the expansionist days of the 1800s, but I had to settle for tending to a few pest-eaten berries. I harvested about 7 strawberries that summer, which I proudly shared with my sisters. My strawberry farming days ended shortly after returning to school. While reading the book “Strawberry Girl” on the bus, it was promptly ripped out of my hands by a group of boys. They persistently teased me, calling me “strawberry girl” the entire year. I wondered if pioneer girls had it any easier.
My childhood diet largely consisted of bagel bites, grilled cheese, chicken nuggets, hot pretzels, crinkle-cut fries, and mini corndog nuggets. I couldn’t cook anything. I couldn’t even avoid scalding my tongue on a pizza roll (no one can- it’s impossible). We were too busy having fun in my family to worry too much about food. However, my first Blacksburg Farmers Market day changed everything. Despite walking away with only a dahlia, I felt a connection to food I hadn’t realized I had been missing.
My sophomore year the town of Blacksburg dedicated a grassy corner lot in the heart of town to the Farmers Market. They added a permanent, open-air covering with beautiful wooden beams, so white tents were no longer necessary. Bluegrass bands picked on Saturday mornings while kids with tangled hair in twirly dresses jumped around in front of them. The market buzzed and hummed with a constant throng of locals. Most Saturday mornings throughout my college years I could be found here. I would visit Farmer Ron, an orchardist who sported a straw hat, denim overalls, a scraggly gray beard, a lazy eye, and a slight lisp. He would slice a Pink Lady apple into thin slivers and pass them out to my friends and me. I would stop by Birdsong Farm’s table to smell their beeswax candles and bars of soap. And always, I would visit the Dahlia Man. Admiring the flawlessness of each perfect petal that made each dahlia a dazzling display of geometry, I would breathe them in. Sometimes I left flower-less, but sometimes just the sight, the smell, the comfort of the dahlias was enough.
In America, food travels an average of 1500 miles to get from farm to plate. Our apples are from Chile, our lettuce is from California, our cereal is from Michigan. Our farmers are unfamiliar faces on bright green tractors occasionally flashing across television ads. Each piece of food that travels to our plate has to be shipped by train, tractor trailer, boat, or plane. All these food miles pile up in our atmosphere as carbon dioxide and contribute to global climate change. Our Earth is changing at a rapidly overwhelming pace, and it’s not going to slow down unless we take action. My advice to you? Go find your Dahlia Man. Meet your farmer. Know where your food comes from. Take your kids to dance with sticky, honey-hands in front of the bluegrass band. Lower your environmental impact by eating fresh, healthy foods from your local Farmers Market. At the Hood River Farmers Market, food travels an average of 18 miles to get from farm to market; a mere fraction of 1500 miles. And guess what? It tastes better. It is affordable. It allows me to connect with my community every weekend. I shake my farmers’ dirt-stained hands and thank them for growing this nourishing food that is good for me and the planet.
The Dahlia Man doesn’t know my name. In fact, I don’t actually know his name either. But I do know that I will forever be grateful to this Blacksburg man that sparked within me a love for Farmers Markets, eating locally, and the simple pleasure of a single dahlia.