Why Crozet: Passions and Livelihood in Rural Area

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Bonnie Samuel specializes in sweet breads, cookies and brownies.

It’s important, where we live and why, and when Albemarle County asked Crozet-area residents to name some of the elements of life here they found most important, it was clear that people valued the rural countryside around us. It’s not only the view, the stars and the clean air, though. Many people here find a deep connection to nature, finding new passions, new hobbies, even ways to make an income pursuing what they love. We interviewed some of them to find out more. This is the eighth part of a series.

The Market People

For the past decade or so, the Crozet Farmers Market has run smoothly and offered high-quality products to the people of Crozet, thanks to the hard work of Al Minutolo, the market manager. Minutolo is a vendor himself—he and wife Sherry own Sheral Flower Farm—and he’s also a master gardener, one of Virginia’s first. With years of experience in his flower business, he’s been able to give his vendors plenty of good advice on growing, packaging and selling. He makes sure they know the rules for listing ingredients and, more recently, for mask-wearing and distancing. 

Al Minutolo. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Even so, Minutolo said the vendors have provided an important learning experience for him. “It amazes me how many people in the community have such talents,” he said. “There are people here who also sell to Whole Foods.” 

He adheres strictly to the requirements of a true community market: “You have to make it, bake it, or grow it to be able to sell here,” he said. He’s proud of each vendor’s success, pointing out Muriel Jacks, whose sturdy bags made from upholstery remnants were chosen by the principal as gifts for the entire graduating class of Miller School, and Pedro Alvizo, whose vegetables are invariably fresh and draw people to the market. 

For his own business this year, he branched out a bit, planting a number of heirloom tomato plants to sell from his house during the pandemic, along with constant strong sellers like Big Boy and Better Girl. Minutolo is someone who’ll sell plants singly if you want only one, or in a pack of two or four. For the past five years, he and the market vendors have donated $1,000 a year to Crozet United Methodist Church’s Grace Grocery.

This year, the market was delayed a few weeks by the pandemic, and moved some yards away from its normal site, but when it opened in mid-June, there were plenty of loyal customers for its home-grown vegetables, home-baked goods and handcrafted products. 

“People were so glad to see us,” said Bonnie Samuel, a regular vendor at the market for more than 15 years. Samuel has had a number of retirement projects, but the market has been a constant in her life even before she retired as a school bus driver for the county, gave up her Tupperware sales, and closed  her business, Crozet Flowers and Gifts, in downtown Crozet. In normal times, she also sings in the Crozet Baptist Church Choir and the Crozet Chorus, and organizes a yearly concert with friends. 

Muriel Jacks sells sturdy bags made from upholstery material. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Samuel has refined her products over time. At first, she sold dried-flower wreaths and arrangements and other handcrafts. “I didn’t really think of myself as a baker,” she said. But she raised three boys, which she said was at times like throwing food down a bottomless pit, and people loved her banana bread and other sweet breads. She refined the recipes, tried a few new things, and discovered that people also loved cookies. “There are three little boys who love my gingerbread men and I saw their faces light up when they saw me again,” she said. Other staples are brownies and cookies—chocolate chip and molasses—as well as the gingerbread.

She acknowledges that it’s probably no way to get rich. “There are days I wonder why I bother, and other days when I really make some money,” she said. But even on the slow days, she enjoys it. If things are really slow, she reads the newspaper or visits with friends. She likes how the market has been run ever since Minutolo became market master.

There are other reasons why she keeps on coming, she said. On her first day back in June, a huge gust of wind knocked over her market tent. “People came from everywhere to help,” she said, “other vendors, customers, everybody. We’re like a family here.” 

Steve Flora sells masks by Cathy Mares with a layer of HEPA material in the center. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Like Samuel, Steve Flora is someone who hasn’t wholly embraced retirement. Since he retired as an agriculture buyer for Southern States, he’s worked for himself as a sales rep and then got serious about his life-long passion for woodworking. His business, HouseRock Crafts, uses wood remnants from fine furniture makers to make items useful and beautiful, from bracelets to oven pulls to tortilla presses to one-of-a-kind sculptural art pieces.

Flora found the farmers market shortly after he moved to Crozet three years ago, and sees it as a way to continue to pursue his hobby, make some extra money and be with people. “You know what salesmen are like,” he said. “We love people. And I’m someone who can’t stand to see anything useful thrown away.”

Steve Flora’s games, kitchen tools and fine wood art. Photo: Theresa Curry.

He’s joined in his business by his wife, Cathy Mares, who has the same frugal and industrious inclinations. Mares was trained in fashion and design, then turned her artistic talents to windows and upholstery. She owns Cathy Mares Designs on Allied Street in Charlottesville. She’s been making special masks from fabric remnants, cutting up HEPA vacuum cleaner bags to fit as the middle piece. Her masks also use a harness tie, rather than an elastic over the ears.

Flora sells those at his booth, too, and he loves doing it. “I come from a farm family, so I like everything having to do with this,” he said. “It allows farmers and others to see their customers. Farmers markets bring the community together.”

Mike Sever of Wild Blue Chocolates. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Mike Sever looks forward to the market, where he sells his carefully handmade Wild Blue Chocolate formed from only two ingredients—cacao beans and maple sugar—with options from dried fruit to wine for additional flavor. “This is the best part of my week,” he said. “I look forward to seeing my customers in person.”

The Crozet Farmers Market is in the field behind the Blue Goose building every Saturday between 8 a.m. and Noon. 

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