WARDENSVILLE — It was a September Saturday, about 10 a.m. The morning fog had burned off the nearby fields. The day would be a warm one in Hardy County.
“We could stand to have more thyme,” said Emma Kiser, eyeing bins of fruits and vegetables and jars and bags of fresh and dried herbs. “We have plenty of oregano, basil and sage.”
Kiser stood beneath a red awning at the Wardensville Garden Market, which opened in April. Nearby stood two 16-year-old farm assistants — as the market describes its help — Wardensville natives Hannah Fogel and Molly Yates.
Kiser, the market’s 26-year-old director of retail and operations, hefted a tomato. It was one of more than 60 varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs grown at the market through the growing season or supplied by area farmers.
Kiser was taking stock at the nonprofit organic market.
The Garden Market is another development in the ongoing renaissance of the first sizable town travelers from the east encounter upon entering West Virginia. And it’s the last significant town they pass through as the unfinished Corridor H highway ends, depositing eastbound traffic onto local roads.
Anything in short supply meant Fogel and Yates would be sent into a nearby fenced-in garden plot to replenish the market’s offerings.
That might mean plucking everything from familiar produce and herbs, such as cucumber, eggplant and collard greens, to less familiar ones such as purple-and-white kohlrabi, Romanian yellow pepper and St. John’s wort.
Yates had just arrived from the fields. She had forgone a basket and delivered fresh-picked tomatoes from a stash gathered into a scoop formed by curling up the bottom of her vine-green Garden Market T-shirt.
“You know, we’ve got baskets,” Fogel needled her co-worker.
“I know,” retorted Yates. “But they didn’t have any down there. And, like, you know — we’ve got our shirts.”
Given the range of offerings at the market, which is likely the largest in Hardy County and certainly in this small town of about 250 souls, Kiser gave the teens some vegetable identification lessons. Vehicles were starting to pull in, off the two-lane W.Va. 48, which runs in front of the market and through town.
“Moneymakers are smaller, round ones,” Kiser said, holding up a pool ball-sized red tomato. She nabbed a hulking tomato with folded skin that bore hues of both yellow and red. “Then, there are Striped Germans, and I don’t think there are any more of those unless you picked some today.”
As one of the teens trundled off to the fields to fill in the gaps, Kiser donned a camera. She began snapping photos of a frozen, plastic-wrapped, free-range chicken for the market’s Facebook page. It came from local farmer Josh Stainthorp, who raises chickens antibiotic free at Wolf Knob Poultry in nearby Capon Bridge.
“I’ve got to advertise that we now have poultry,” Kiser said.
The Garden Market is the latest development in the continuing growth of this formerly dormant small town.
Traffic studies indicate that 4,000 to 6,000 cars pass through Wardensville each day, a town first chartered in 1832 in Virginia and incorporated in West Virginia in 1879. Among the many travelers are vacationers headed to tourist spots in the Mountain State or to nearby Lost River and its luxurious Guesthouse Lost River, a vacation destination favored by many gay residents of Washington, D.C., 125 miles to the east.
Among those vacationers were Paul Yandura and his partner Donald Hitchcock, who bought a cabin in Lost River in 2008.
Yandura had worked as White House liaison to the LGBT community under President Bill Clinton, while Hitchcock was a national field director at the National Coalition for LGBT Health. Both wanted to figure out how to extend their weekend stays in Eastern West Virginia.
First, they became real estate agents in the area. Meanwhile, they began to develop the Lost River Trading Post, transforming a 1940s-era building into an eclectic destination stocked with offbeat antiques and home furnishings, a small art gallery, cappuccino bar, baked goods, a wall of craft beers and handmade area crafts.
They settled into town, moving into a house beside their new business. In the following years, they helped to fast-forward a move to make Wardensville and the surrounding area a place people want to “stop, shop and live,” as Yandura put it.
They have encouraged and been aided by other entrepreneurs and by Mayor Barbara Ratcliff, who was elected mayor in 2014.
The Lost River Brewing Company had already opened on Wardensville’s single main street in 2011, serving fresh seafood and handcrafted brews. The Lost River Trading Post opened in 2013. The Mansion on Main art gallery opened early last year along with the Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College New Biz Launchpad.
Several other businesses have opened since then, bringing more customers to longtime standbys like the Kac-Ka-Pon Restaurant and Star Mercantile. It is common to see D.C. and other out-of-state license plates come to visit the area and — in increasing numbers — to remain and live.
As Yandura and Hitchcock have helped fuel the town’s awakening into a go-to port-of-call, Yandura had a couple of other ideas.
The Wardensville Garden Market was one.
“I’ve always wanted to open a farmers market in the area,” Yandura said.
But he wanted to do it in a way that might keep some of the younger locals around longer.
The market sits on a small portion of a 200-acre plot of historic land in Wardensville, originally surveyed by George Washington and deeded to the Frye family by Lord Fairfax in the 18th century. The property has been in the family’s hands all those years, until Yandura and some investor friends came along and bought the larger portion of it.
Eventually, he said they hope to develop cabins along the Cacapon River, which the property borders, so visitors who stop in town have new places to stay.
For right now, the Garden Market has gotten off to a good start on the property, joining the growing farm-to-table, farmers market and organic local foods movement burgeoning across West Virginia.
A main part of the market’s mission is to train young people in skills that might either keep them in the state or make them more employable if they do leave. The old Frye family farmhouse beside the market is being renovated into a catering, event and restaurant site that will be staffed by some of the young farm assistants when it opens next year.
Yandura stood beside three soccer-ball-sized, dark-green Sugar Baby melons, as well as fresh cantaloupes supplied by Sam Brill, a young farmer who works at the nearby Capon Springs and Farms family resort.
He noted that farmers markets can be erratic, with floating hours and produce dependent on whatever farmers happen to bring. They can also be financially unsustainable.
Yandura said he wanted to address these issues by having the market grow the greater part of its offerings on site. He also decided to launch the market as a nonprofit to reduce the initial pressure to make the business immediately profitable.
Yandura landed a $214,000 grant from the JDL Foundation, based in Miami. The foundation focuses on youth empowerment, but its funding is usually directed toward inner-city youth in places like Miami, New York and Los Angeles. The Garden Market has since hired 11 high-school-age youth plus two high school graduates, along with Kiser and Director of Farming Cindy Jenks. Of the younger staff, most either attend or graduated from East Hardy High School.
The market creates a new source of well-paying jobs for local youths, who earn from $9 to $10 per hour, a noteworthy entry income level in a job-scarce market.
“Young people around here work super hard. We don’t have to teach them how to grow, right? We don’t have to teach them how to work hard outside,” Yandura said. “But the marketing, the business entrepreneurship — that kind of stuff is what we teach. How do you run a business? How do you start a business? How do you deal with people?”
When the market first opened, the young hires not only had to work hard, they also had to study well.
“They would come in from the field, and they would learn about marketing, how to act in an office, experiences with customers, creating a good work environment, professionalism, problem solving, that kind of stuff,” he said.
They set out traffic cones a few feet from the produce stalls.
“A customer could not break the cones without someone walking up to them and saying ‘Hi,’ and giving them a flier, or they failed the customer service part,” he said.
Like many farm-to-table operations, the Garden Market offers a Community Shared Agriculture (or CSA) option. Customers pay $10 a week for 12 weeks. Each week, they pick up a box of varied fresh produce, which includes a dozen items, anything from lemon-basil, red potatoes and zucchini, to white and red cherry tomatoes, cabbage, and corn.
“That’s very affordable in that we give them about a $16 value in produce,” Kiser said. “Most CSAs are much more expensive than that.”
The introductory lower price, which is likely to go up next year, was designed to encourage customers to sign up — but also to give the market a chance to get feedback.
Given the market’s wide range, they sometimes have to provide a little education on the side, Kiser said. She has been known to give out a kohlrabi for free just to get a customer to try it.
Yates is one of those who picks the kohlrabi, cucumbers and whatnot and packs the boxes.
“I’ve always worked outside my entire life. I love working outside,” she said.
She lives just 10 minutes down the road at a West Virginia University farm operated by her father.
“My dad has been a farmer, my granddad was always a farmer. Now, they passed it down to us,” Yates said.
As well as being able to identify a Striped German tomato, she tallied up other things she was learning.
“I’m learning to work with others and cooperate more in my community, to work with strangers who come to the farm and want to know more about it.”
She anticipates she’ll likely take her newfound skills elsewhere, but she hopes to keep them within the state’s boundaries.
“I’ve always had a dream place in mind, which is in Southern West Virgina,” she said. “I’m not going to move out of West Virginia because I love West Virginia.”
The market’s mission has already attracted a come-see visit from WVU President Gordon Gee. He recently toured the market with state Sen. Bob Williams.
“The president of WVU is talking about getting mentors for students in the program so when they graduate high school they’ll already be thinking WVU,” Yandura said.
As customers began to filter into a thriving market that didn’t exist a year ago, Yandura described how it all fit into the same picture.
“The bigger vision was to do something to keep on growing the town.”
The Wardensville Garden Market is open from 2 to 7 p.m. Friday and 9 to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/wardensvillegardenmarket or call 304-897-2083.
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at
304-348-3017 or follow
@douglaseye on Twitter.