Rogue Food Unites celebrates one year of free farmers markets

By Jane Vaughan (Jefferson Public Radio)
Nov. 9, 2023 2 p.m.
Rogue Food Unites' Director of Logistics Wendy Conner helps a shopper fill her bag with produce.

Rogue Food Unites' Director of Logistics Wendy Conner helps a shopper fill her bag with produce.

Jane Vaughn/JPR

It’s a fall afternoon in October in Talent, and Cynthia Guillen and Arlene Thommen are shopping at a farmers market.


“It’s like our trick-or-treating,” Guillen laughs. “Vegetable-treating!”

A table is piled with fresh, organic produce: peppers, beef, eggs, avocados, apples and more.

Most shoppers come back every week, laughing and catching up with friends. Guillen and Thommen said the variety of produce has inspired them to try cooking new dishes, and they appreciate that it’s all so fresh and beautiful, not leftover seconds.

As music plays in the background, Thommen walks along the table with volunteer Carolyn Singh and fills her basket: parsley, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli.

The trick? All of this food is free.

Rogue Food Unites

October marked the one-year anniversary of the farmers markets.

They’re run by Rogue Food Unites, a nonprofit based in Ashland. It was founded after the Almeda Fire in 2020 to fill acute hunger needs in the region and now includes other programs, like the markets, to address food insecurity.

The organization runs four farmers markets per week, year-round, in Medford, Phoenix, Talent and Eagle Point. All of the food at those markets is given away for free.

Rogue Food Unites’ Executive Director Amber Ferguson said the markets are also low-barrier, meaning shoppers don’t have to prove their need in any way. Anyone can walk up and shop for themselves and their family.

“The reason we do it that way is to lower as many barriers as possible so that people are willing to wait in line and come see us and have a good time and receive healthy food,” she said.

Each market serves hundreds of people, many of whom are disabled, Spanish speaking or aged 60 and over.

The organization’s Director of Logistics Wendy Conner said the markets offer a wide variety of produce, so there’s an opportunity for both shoppers and staff to learn about food they might not have cooked before.

“Some people are like ‘What do I do with this? I don’t know!’ And so we add little tidbits of our own to try to make things simple and easy for people. ‘A leek is just a really big scallion, and here’s how you clean it.’ And then they come back the next week. ‘That was so great, I made this!’ It’s really wonderful,” she said.

Conner said she tries to vary the produce that the nonprofit buys each week so that shoppers can get a variety of options.

At the end of each week, any leftover food is donated to local organizations, so nothing goes to waste.

Rogue Food Unites Executive Assistant Jennifer Nelson said that working at the market, she sees new people coming all the time, as well as old friends coming back, with the kids all playing together.


Fry Family Farm

The Fry Family Farm store in Medford. The farm supplies thousands of pounds of food a week to the farmers markets.

The Fry Family Farm store in Medford. The farm supplies thousands of pounds of food a week to the farmers markets.

Jane Vaughan/JPR

Rogue Food Unites buys the food from 8-10 different farms in Josephine and Jackson counties, including Fry Family Farm.

Sitting outside the Fry Family Farm store in Medford, General Manager Amber Fry said Rogue Food Unites has important impacts not only on local community members, but also on the farms as well.

“They are the largest buyer in the Rogue Valley of organic fruits and vegetables from us, so it really keeps the farm alive in that way, too,” she said.

Fry Family Farm started over 30 years ago and is a certified organic farm that operates on about 100 acres in Ashland, Medford and Phoenix.

Fry said Rogue Food Unites buys thousands of pounds of produce per week from the farm. Supplying these markets helps keep their food in the Rogue Valley.

Fry tries to highlight whatever local food needs to be sold that week, even if it’s not usually a crowd favorite.

“This week we said turnips. It’s not everybody’s favorite, but they’re beautiful, they’re super amazing right now. And they took 20 cases of turnips. That’s a lot of turnips to move in a week,” she said.

The produce that is available rotates each season. With a recent frost, Fry said the menu will shift to hardier crops that can survive the weather, like beets, turnips, lettuces and Swiss chard.

Future of the markets

Swiss chard grows at Fry Family Farm in Medford.

Swiss chard grows at Fry Family Farm in Medford.

Jane Vaughan/JPR

Ferguson said Rogue Food Unites wants to keep these markets going. But they’re expensive. Each market costs them about $5,500. They’ve been paying for them from their operational reserves, but food is expensive, and funding sources have changed since the COVID pandemic and Almeda Fire.

Conner said sometimes shoppers will hand them money or homemade food like tamales as a thank you.

The markets are open year-round, regardless of the weather. Ferguson said they’ve only been closed twice in the past year, once for bad air quality and once for snow.

“As somebody that can suffer from seasonal depression, it’s really wonderful to just be able to get out no matter what,” Ferguson said. “I’m gonna go, I’m gonna go stand in the rain, I’m gonna go stand in the heat, I’m gonna go be with my neighbors and find something to be okay about.”

People say they’ve been shopping at the Talent market for months. Most come every week, although some say that they get so much food that they don’t need to come back for another two weeks.

Lisa Byrne was displaced by the Almeda Fire. She’s an older resident who was homeless and is on disability. She now lives in Talent and said her benefits have not gone up as the price of food has, so the market is a huge help.

“It’s amazing, and it’s needed. This is a really great way to get fresh vegetables. Otherwise, it’s just a little more lean in the kitchen,” she said.

While she can get shelf-stable items elsewhere, she said fresh produce is hard to come by.

“I would say it’s miraculous, and the people that run it, it’s like they’re angels. They’re food angels. That’s what I call them,” Byrne said.

As the sun sets over Talent, the line of shoppers never seems to shorten. A team of 10 staff and volunteers works to stock the table and fill shoppers’ bags, replenishing both food and much-needed community.