When Gillian Warmkessel moved to Wilmington Island from Ohio in 2011, she didn't miss the harsh winters or the lack of marshfront views.
She did, however, long for the farmers market where neighbors and townsfolk would gather every Saturday morning.
"We would walk over with the dog and the kids in the wagon to pick up fresh vegetables and run into all of our friends," reminisces the mother of two. "It was the main thing I missed when we moved here because it brought together the community every week."
A committed consumer of organic produce and sustainably-raised meats, Warmkessel frequents Savannah's Forsyth Farmers Market as much as she can, but driving across the river every weekend proves difficult.
"I truly love the Forsyth market, but to come in from the island and brave the parking, then my kids want to play on the playground — I'd come in to buy tomatoes and before I knew it, half the day was gone," she laments.
Fortunately for Warmkessel and the rest of her neighbors, the opportunity to buy food directly from local farmers has arrived on the island.
The Wilmington Island Farmers Market will cut its long-awaited ribbon at 10 a.m. this Tuesday, Sept. 3 at its new venue at the corner of Walthour and Concord Roads. Violinist Ann Cafferty will serenade the event, and attendees will be treated to slice of cake from Rum Runners Bakery. The fall market season officially begins the following Saturday, Sept. 7 with special guest Jamie Deen and runs through Dec. 21. Vendors include Hunter Cattle Company, Georgia Buffalo, Gruber Farms and Clark & Sons Organics with more to come.
"We are so excited for this, and so many people have put in the effort to make it happen," says market manager Debby McIncrow.
McIncrow and a "core group" of about 25 island residents began exploring the possibility of their own market a year ago in order to make buying fresh food more convenient. But creating a way for residents to congregate was a priority as well. Though it boasts more than 15,000 residents and a healthy average income, Wilmington Island has few sidewalks and even fewer public spaces, so the new market fills several niches at once.
"We toyed with whether to call it a community market or a farmers market because people wanted so much more than to just come and buy vegetables," says McIncrow. "Either way, it's a positive environment for families to gather on a Saturday."
The planning phase got a healthy boost when Islands Community Church elder Jim Bulluck heard about the group's efforts. He and other church leaders had been seeking a way to become more involved in the island's everyday happenings, and when Bulluck heard the nascent market needed a location, he convinced the church to donate a five-acre parcel on the corner of their lot. The market folks were also allowed to rehab one of the outbuildings as an office and build a stage with supplies donated by Home Depot.
"It's going to be tremendous to have that many people on the property," exclaims Bulluck. "We're looking forward to meeting the people of the island."
He reiterates that while the market is on church grounds, the event is wholly non-denominational.
"We are just so happy to serve the community in this way."
The Wilmington Island market is at the same time as the Forsyth Farmers Market, but so far the relationship between the two organizations has been more collaborative than competitive.
A few farmers have hired extra staff to be able to sell at both Saturday markets, and FFM director Teri Schell has shared with McIncrow some of the wisdom she's gained.
"Any avenue that allows local farmers to sell their produce and put more local food in people's bellies is something I support," affirms Schell, who has been overseeing the downtown market since it was was just a handful of tents.
"People really want to have local food right in their neighborhoods, and now people in that part of Savannah who don't come into town for our market will have the opportunity to get that."
McIncrow is grateful for the support and is working to tailor the Wilmington Island market around the community it serves by inviting non-food-related island businesses and organizations to have a presence. The idea is to appeal to more than the "typical farmers market customers"— i.e., mothers in their 30s and 40s — by inviting all kinds of interesting people from the corners of the island.
The market will feature a guest speaker every week as well as local music, giving folks reason to stick around after buying their organic squash and bunches of kale. Roberto Leoci has helped develop a monthly chef program and will be on hand at the Sept. 28 market to demonstrate how to cook one of his signature dishes at home.
Of course, there will be story time for the children, and plenty of shady picnic tables for island families to hang out and relax at a market all their own.
Warmkessel knows it will take time to build up to the abundance of her hometown market, but she's enthusiastic to support the new foodie community.
"It will take me less than five minutes to get there," she rejoices. "I can just grab what I need and go, or I can stand there and chat if I want to.
"It will be so nice to just be able to bump into my neighbors."