It’s a cool Tuesday evening at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds in Norman. Trucks and trailers are in the parking lot with watermelon, pumpkins, and other produce. Each vendor sets up a tent in front of a trailer. On their tables, staples are laid out in baskets and bags. Elza Elam’s table has a full array of produce for this evening’s market including tomatoes, okra and peas.
Elam has made food her career. For 36 years, she was a food service manager at Reagan Memorial Hospital in Chickasha. Meanwhile her husband worked at the farmer’s market after leaving the oil field.
“He couldn’t find any jobs around here so he started hauling watermelons, and he'd start in the Rio Grand Valley when they started in Texas and he'd haul watermelons and cantaloupes for years and sold to the stores and cafe's,” Elam said.
The homegrown produce was refreshing to Elam after decades of preparing canned and frozen cafeteria food. On the weekends she was off work, she helped her husband with their farmer’s market stand.
“ I like fresh foods and I’ve cooked canned foods too many times and then tried it with fresh foods and there's a world of difference in the flavor,” Elam said. “When I retired about 9 years ago, I helped him and he had just started up here.”
Not all vendors at the Norman Farmer’s Market grow and sell their own produce. Some vendors travel around Oklahoma and into neighboring states to purchase produce and resell it at the Market. Elam's family has done both over their many years in the business.
“ I did grow all of it for a long time, but, I can't now because I'm a little bit too old and I don't have enough help to get it done because my children are disabled,” Elam said. “Right now I have four different farmers more or less that I buy from, truck patch farmers that I buy from. And that supplies my market with my uh, homegrown.”
Growers face challenges in getting a consistent supply of produce to the markets. Elam had problems this year with watermelons and corn and especially tomatoes because of floods in the Dibble area where they source much of their produce.
“ When it flooded down there and the dam broke, they lost some big fields,” Elam said. “That cut us back on our tomatoes that I was hoping to get and some of the corn, some of the watermelons.”
Keeping up the market requires a lot of work, even without growing the produce, but Elam doesn’t mind the work.
“It gives you something to do, which, at my age, which is 77, it keeps your mind sharp to have something to do rather than just be retired and sit at home,” Elam said.
But there’s more to it than keeping sharp in her golden years. Elam has now taken the stand over completely from her husband. He and several of her children are disabled which makes the farmers stand Elam runs their main source of income. For now, everyone pitches in however they can.
“If they all go to work or can't help, then well, well, I'll quit,” Elam said. “But right now I got too many people depending on me to do that, that I couldn't really.
To Elza, homegrown food is the best, and taking care of family is a necessity. Supplying produce for farmers markets has allowed her to do both.