08/22/2014 09:15 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

Ferguson's Farmers Market Offers Respite, Vegetables

As protests in Ferguson have spiraled into chaos over the past two weeks, there's been an oasis of calm in the center of the St. Louis suburb: The farmers market.

Since 2002, the Ferguson Farmers Market has offered fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy produced by dozens of local farmers and other vendors. On Saturday, the damp weather might normally have meant a small crowd. But the market was bustling.

"It was pouring rain, but there were lots of people out, talking, shopping, buying big, beautiful tomatoes, talking to the mayor," said Katie Miller, 33, the co-owner of St. Louis jewelry store Scarlett Garnet, who drove out from the city to show support for the market.

"The vibe was great," said Elliot Mellow, 27, the owner of Absolutely Perfect, a St. Louis business that makes specialty sauces and seasonings. "There were lots of hugs and smiles, lots of emotion, but good emotion," said Mellow. "People were thankful."

Since Aug. 9, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a police officer, protests have become a nightly occurrence, often with clashes between demonstrators and police. Vandalism and looting have been widespread, hundreds of people have been arrested, at least two have been wounded by gunfire. News and photos of the unrest have been front-page news, widely shared worldwide on social media.

But in Ferguson, the community has bonded to overcome the negativity. At least two organizations are selling T-shirts with messages of solidarity -- "Ferguson Proud" and "I Heart Ferg" -- with the proceeds going to local charities. Mellow said he donated the money he made Saturday to the Ferguson Youth Initiative, a nonprofit that encourages young people to be active members of the community. A bakery a few blocks south of the farmers market, Cose Dolci Bakery, has been selling heart-shaped cookies that say "Ferg" in the middle.

"It's way of spreading the love," bakery owner Bess Thompson said. "We were all so blindsided by this. It's kind of ironic this happened here, because of all communities in north St. Louis County, Ferguson is the most progressive, the most inclusive, the most tolerant."

The Ferguson Farmers Market is open Saturdays during warm months (in winter, it's open every third Saturday in a church). The farmers market will be open again on Saturday as scheduled, said volunteer Chris Shanahan, 39.

Some who came out to the market said they wanted to support local business, because they're worried the negative publicity will affect the local economy. "People remember what they see. People who see all this on the news will be scared of Ferguson," said Julie Johnson, 31, a special education teacher who lives nearby. "We're trying to show these small businesses some love."

Local businesses have already been hurt. Dellwood Market owner Muntaz Lalani, who's in his 60s, said "thugs" had ransacked his business twice since Aug. 10. He estimated the damage at $50,000. Joe O'Donnell, who owns a Papa John's Pizza franchise in nearby Dellwood, said he had to close early last week and lost about 40 percent of his business.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) recently said she's starting a campaign #ShopFerguson to help support local businesses and highlight ways people are helping.

Sarah Crowe, 24, a hairstylist who lives in nearby St. Charles County, said she was worried how the media coverage would affect Ferguson's mom and pop shops. "Even celebs are tweeting such horrible things about Ferguson," said Crowe, who grew up in St. Louis and came to the farmers market on Saturday with her roommate, Sam, to show support for the town.

"After this one bad incident, it's now embarrassing to be from here," Crowe said. "With the media, I know they're just doing their jobs, but it really makes Ferguson look like a horrible place. In reality, it's not that way at all. It's a cozy environment. It's just a normal small town."