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A Special crop of kids

It's a Tuesday in early September, the first day of school for area children. But Benny, Alec and Ruby Painter, ages 8, 10 and 12, will spend the day with their father and sister, selling doughnuts and juices at the Growers and Crafters Market in Ashland.

Even on summer mornings, those first market hours are chilly. The children nestle inside the family van, hats on heads and warm cups of cocoa in hand, while their sister, Jessica, 21, mixes batter for the doughnut machine whose sizzling scent is the siren call of the market.

Their conversation turns to working outdoors on cold days.

"We learn to put on and take off layers," says Ruby. "Especially in winter, you pile on so many sweaters you can hardly move your arms."

"Sometimes, if you don't wear gloves, your hands get cold," Benny explains.

"But it's sorta hard working in gloves," interjects Alec.

Benny, Alec and Ruby are market kids, children who work with their families selling food, crafts, plants or produce. Some children help out in summer. Others, like the Painters, are homeschooled and work three markets a week, from early spring to late fall.

Their days are vibrant with cheerful bouquets, jaunty sunflowers, bountiful produce in crayon-box colors. Best of all are the beckoning smells from dozens of delectable treats. It's "pretty fun" — and definitely delicious — growing up at Growers Market.

Market kids are hardy, healthy kids who don't shy away from hard work, don't complain about long days and early hours, and who understand firsthand that money doesn't really come from ATM machines.

"Working at the market develops qualities that are hard to find," says their father, Jerry. "The children learn to deal with people. They understand how to make money, and they understand the value of money."

"It's hard, but rewarding," says Ruby. "We bring toys to play with. Today we brought scooters, a teddy bear and a sock puppet."

"It's fun," affirms Alec. "I get to eat a lot. I eat all day long. You would probably get bored sitting at a desk all day at school."

Their conversation is interrupted when a customer stops by with presents for them. Heads bent together, the children exclaim over packets of gleaming sun stones.

This is the place where they grow up; canopied communities that pop up quickly, with no walls to separate neighbors in their 10-by-10 spaces. It's a daylong campout of sorts, each vendor family dependent only on what they can fit in a van, truck or camper. And it's a daylong conversation with the stream of customers who often become friends.

"We come into contact with about 5,000 people a week," says Jerry. "Our nucleus of regulars at the three markets is about 1,500 a week. After so many years doing the market, we can't go anywhere without being recognized."

"I've earned the honorary title of 'Donut Girl'," comments Jessica wryly. "I've been doing the market since I was 10 and could barely see over the counter. I was so shy I wouldn't speak up."

In addition to her role as Donut Girl, Jessica is a writer, artist and singer. She knows the meaning of hard work in a way that many of her contemporaries do not.

"Kids have a whole different understanding of chores. Other kids say 'I work, I do the dishes at home.' Uh-uh, that's not work," she says.

Jessica is usually the first one up at 4 a.m.; heating water, making coffee, rousing the children for the long ride from Williams.

The Pennington family also is up long before dawn. Three days a week there's baking and berry picking to be done, but on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays they drive from their farm in the Applegate Valley to markets in Ashland, Medford or Grants Pass.

"On the drive in, some days we chit chat, some days we don't say a word," says Cathy Pennington. "It doesn't matter. We're just together "¦ I'm with my best friends."

Pennington's best friends are her five children, ages 12 to 22, who work side-by-side with their parents to sell the jams and pastries they make and the berries they grow.

"We started doing the market when our oldest daughter, Jackie, was 8. Our youngest, Max, was raised in a backpack. "¦ It's a lifestyle that works so great for us. We have one-on-one time with the kids and they've learned so much. Our daughter, Tatum, is number one in sales nationwide for Bloomingdales. Nationwide," emphasizes Cathy. "We credit the market for her sales ability."

Jackie, 22, recently home from cooking school, agrees. "This has set me up. The market has been a great experience with great people. In fact, I lived in San Francisco for the first year with people we met as customers at the market."

"They do an amazing amount of work," Cathy says of her children. "Once they're on their own, they can't believe how easy it is to be an employee. Lunch breaks — they never knew about breaks, we always just worked through."

An early work ethic can become a lifelong strength. Lincoln Alexander, 19, is about to start his second year in college and plans to become a pharmacist.

"Lincoln is in college now, meeting kids from all over," says his mother, Laurel, busy selling flowers and produce at the Thursday market in Medford. "Some of them haven't done much physical labor. Now he's realizing, 'Oh, I do know how to work and it's not a bad thing.' The farm teaches them responsibility."

As toddlers, Lincoln and his brother, Oliver, spent market days ensconced in a 1972 Caveman camper. "I used a safety gate and lots of books. I rotated toys," says Laurel.

"When the boys got older they sold sweet peas and blackberries at a little table, playing store. They learned how to count change back when they were really young."

The boys attended public school, but still spent time at the market. "My aunt picked me up after school to drop me off where my mom was doing the market," Lincoln recalls. "I was really excited to be there. I was jealous that my little brother got to be there all day."

Some of Lincoln's best market memories are of the vendors who became friends — Diane, who spoke to the boys like they were adults, and Irv, who always slipped them free breadsticks.

"My customers bought stuff from the boys when they were little," Laurel recalls. "They still follow their lives, ask about college."

"Those relationships that develop at the market are priceless," Cathy Pennington concurs. "The customers ask about the kids, share their love and concern."

Relationships, with both customers and families, are what the market is all about, market kids say. Brandon Bigham often works with his cousins, Blake and Chris. All three boys are 13 years old.

"We're pretty much born the same year," explains Brandon. "It makes it more fun and easier. We sit and talk, sometimes we bring paperwork for school."

Brandon is a fifth-generation farmer. His family has been farming near Table Rock since 1909. His grandfather, parents and cousins sell produce at four markets a week.

"We began doing the market five years before Brandon was born," says his father, Doug. "He came in strollers and in car seats. He's really been coming even before he was born. He knows all the ins and outs."

"I have my own garden," says Brandon, already a serious farmer. "I grow watermelon, melon, sunflowers, gourds, cucumbers and tomatoes — especially tomatoes. I wanted to try all the different varieties."

Brandon has his own business selling plants, but most of the produce from his garden goes to feed his family.

"On Fridays, my mom and I make food for my cousin with cancer, for Chris's uncle, and for my grandpa who lives on our place, up on the hill," says Brandon.

"We just made stuffed peppers and tomatoes, and deep-fried zucchini, which is extremely delicious. We divide the food into containers and deliver it to different cousins."

The reward these families earn for their long hours and hard work is a luxury — more time with their children.

Even then, there's still not enough time. For Laurel Alexander, with one son off to college and another in his last year of high school, a question about memories of her children when they were young touches a tender place.

"It's a hard time to ask me that. I'm excited that they are respectful, nice, young men, but "¦ I miss them selling sweet peas and berries."

"My favorite part of the market," says Jackie Pennington, "is being with my family. That's my best market memory, being able to have time together. Most people don't have that. My parents were always there."

On a Thursday afternoon in Medford, Sam Pennington and his mother work together, taking down their booth after another day at market. Sam, 17, may be the one to continue the family business. He's planning a farming internship in Tuscany and a college degree in business agriculture.

What's Sam's favorite part of the market? "Just staying with my mom," he says. "It's pretty fun."

His mother, Cathy, beams. "I love you, Sam," she says with infinite warmth in her voice.

"I love you too, Mom."

Jerry Painter with his children, from left, Alec, 10, Benny, 8, Ruby, 12, and Jessica, 21, who all help him run Daddy's Doughnuts and Juices. - Jim Craven