Farmers Market Freshness
For years, the only “farmers market” in Vance County and surrounding areas was an open parking lot behind the local YMCA, where growers sold produce from the backs of their trucks. So a decade ago, when state financial support for tobacco farms disappeared, Pete Burgess and his fellow farmers knew they had to do something to help their peers, especially those with small plots. How about a real farmers market?
“Vance County is one of the poorest counties in the state, and the farmers in this area really needed something they could look forward to participating in that would generate some income,” Burgess says. He owns Burgess Farms in Henderson, a 500-acre former tobacco farm started by his wife’s grandfather in 1918 that now grows grain, hay and sweet corn.
Although the idea was well received, it lay dormant for five years, until the Vance County Farm Bureau stepped in to turn it into a reality. With aid from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, N.C. Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, and local businesses and organizations, the Vance County Regional Farmers Market finally opened in June 2014. Spring through fall, local vendors sell their wares, from snow peas and strawberries to cut flowers, soaps, bakery goods, crafts and honey, in a 7,500-square-foot, multipurpose building near the Social Security office.
The new venue belongs to a healthy crop of farmers markets sprouting throughout the South. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, North Carolina is one of the fastest-growing states for the down-home markets – up nearly 5 percent from 2013 to 2014. Nationwide, the number has increased fivefold in the past 20 years.
“This gives good-quality, locally grown, fresh produce that we can’t get in our grocery stores,” says Tracy Madigan, manager of the Vance County Regional Farmers Market. “Most of the produce in the grocery store, while it’s fine, has been shipped from South America or Florida and been on trucks for days. From a community standpoint, this is much healthier.”
Small farmers who don’t sell to the big grocery store chains also appreciate having a public space that helps them boost revenue.
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“It gives them a place they can depend on,” Burgess says. “One of the things we’ve been really surprised at is [the number of] young farmers. We’ve had vendors who were about 15 years old. They had their own produce stand. They grew their own stuff. And they probably did better than anybody we had.”
A major benefit to local farmers is the interaction with customers, who often ask: What’s this different type of corn? Is a sprite (a type of Japanese melon) as sweet as a honeydew? What does a kershaw (an heirloom squash in the pumpkin family) taste like?
“The customers really enjoy learning,” Madigan says. “And the farmers really enjoy talking about their methods and practices, where this particular tomato came from and whether it’s an heirloom or a Big Boy.”
Jamaican-born Royston Brown, owner of Orelly’s Curry Q Sauce Co. in Oxford, learned how to cook with his parents and create Caribbean seasonings at a young age. He sells six mild-to-hot flavors at the Vance County Regional Farmers Market. “It’s a very good way of having a face-to-face conversation with a customer,” he says. “It helps the business by word-of-mouth, by the customer who comes in and tries [samples]. They will tell their friends and neighbors, and that helps promote the business. It’s a very good advertisement being at the farmers market.”
The Vance County market also features a fully equipped classroom for budding farmers. As part of the state’s REAL (Rural Entrepreneurship through Action Learning) agricultural program offered through Vance-Granville Community College, students learn about everything from distribution logistics to making money between growing seasons. The market also hosts free gardening workshops for the public and classes for those in the four-county Master Gardener program.
In its first year, an average of 300 customers visited the fledgling market each day. “We’ve got a long way to go in getting the entire community,” says Madigan, who hopes it will eventually open five or six days a week. “We have a segment [of the community] that knows about it, loves it and shops here regularly. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do to get the word out.”
North Carolina Farmers Markets
These markets are owned by the state and operated by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services:
Western North Carolina (WNC) Farmers Market, Asheville
Located on 36 acres with a panoramic view of the mountains and Biltmore Estate, this sprawling marketplace is open seven days a week and features, among other things, a greenhouse with tropical plants, ponds, bonsai and a 40-foot waterfall.
Charlotte Regional Farmers Market
In addition to baked goods, jams and produce, you’ll find fresh pork products, grass-fed beef, ostrich, emu and goat milk cheese. A new craft barn offers crocheted accessories, woodwork and other items.
State Farmers Market, Raleigh
Custom picture framing, three restaurants and a cluster of specialty shops with old-fashioned candles, soaps and lotions round out this destination featuring local fruits, vegetables and meats. Also for sale: Home accents such as fountains, trellises and pottery.
Robert G. Shaw Piedmont Triad Farmers Market, Greensboro
Two large buildings teem with produce, plants, ornamentals, meats and cheeses. The year-round Market Shoppes offers everything from honey and nuts to ice cream and wine; the garden center features a greenhouse; and the Moose Café serves home-cooked veggies from the market.
For more information, visit ncagr.gov/markets.
– Nancy Henderson