Friendly, Fresh and Local
North Carolina’s farmers markets are growing, to the benefit of local communities.By Scott Gates
Spring rain is falling hard and steady on the white pop-up tents of the Winton Farmers Market, but its regular patrons are undeterred. Minutes ahead of the advertised open time of three o’clock, local residents begin arriving by car and on foot. They duck under the dripping edges of the tents and chat with vendors, thumbing through pocketbooks to buy fresh baked goods, greens and some early season vegetables. Kat Van Roy’s asparagus sells out within 30 minutes. Jean Martin’s strawberry pies are bought or claimed within 10 minutes.
Jessie Moore, a vendor who farms with her husband, William, on 200 acres near Harrellsville, is bagging and weighing fresh-picked kale greens she’s brought in a large bin — clearly taking pride in just how fresh they are.
“Greens are my favorite,” Moore says with a laugh. “I picked these this morning. In fact, I picked these and within 30 minutes I was dressed and ready to bring them to the market.”
The farmers market in Winton, the county seat of Hertford County near Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s service territory, is now in its fourth year. Like other farmers markets across the state, it serves two important purposes: It provides residents with a local source of fresh produce, and it provides farmers with a reliable means of selling their crops.
“These farmers were looking for a market,” says Anass Banna, an area agent with Hertford County Cooperative Extension. Banna recruited Winton’s market vendors, and trained them in vegetable handling and food safety. “Before we had the farmers market, they would sell to neighbors or off the back of their trucks. This came at the right time, so they jumped right in.”
Ten years ago, there were about 100 farmers markets across the state. Today there are more than 250, making up almost three percent of the nationwide total and ranking the state 10th as far as number of markets (California leads with more than 750, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The per-state average is 170.)
A few key reasons fueled the recent growth in North Carolina.
“People are taking a closer look at where their food is coming from,” says Kevin Hardison, agricultural marketing specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS). “They like a connection with who’s growing their food — some see locally sourced food as safer and healthier.”
For communities like Winton, a farmers market can also fill a basic need for fresh produce. The area was once designated as a food desert, defined as a region where both access to supermarkets and household incomes are low. A federal grant helped launch the Winton market, and this year alone five others are being started in surrounding counties to combat the same issue, providing residents with a local, reliable source of produce.
On the vendor side, Hardison says a local market can serve as a starting point for smaller growers. As they expand operations over the years, he’s seen some move on to be very large national — even international — distributors. And the good news is, he’s seeing a growing interest in small-scale farming across the state. A small farm is technically one that grows and sells between $1,000 and $250,000 per year in agricultural products, and about 87 percent of North Carolina’s farms fall in this category.
“A lot of folks are looking to start small farms as a second career or following military service,” Hardison says.
Several resources and organizations are available to support those interested in farming, including the Farmer Veteran Coalition and the Farmers Market Coalition. Grants also are available for small farm operations, administered at the both federal level and by North Carolina-based organizations including the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, the Golden LEAF Foundation and the Leonard-Mobley Small Farm Fund.
For aspiring small farmers and fledgling markets alike, the most critical source of support is the local community they serve. It’s a two-way street, Hardison explains. The community can show support for a farmers market through donations, volunteer work and by simply shopping there. The market can return that support by providing residents with services beyond fresh produce.
For one, just under half of all farmers markets in the state support federal nutrition programs, according to USDA, accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments.
Technology has helped make EBT card payments possible in even the most rural areas. Where it was once necessary to run a telephone landline to a payment machine, purchases can now be processed with a smartphone. Farmers market vendors can apply to process SNAP funds at www.fns.usda.gov.
And of course, it helps to have fun.
“A good farmers market will have events to bring people out — and not just to purchase goods. It can be an opportunity to meet the growers, to socialize and for folks to just enjoy the outdoors,” Hardison says. “I’ve seen markets host blood drives, offer cooking lessons, host Girl Scout cookie stands — that connection to community is what makes a successful farmers market.”
The Carrboro Farmers Market, near Piedmont Electric’s service territory west of Raleigh, has grown from hosting 20 vendors in 1978 to more than 70 vendors today. Over its history, it has positioned itself as a hot spot for community events, hosting dinners, children’s events, live music, cooking classes and seasonal festivals like the Strawberry Jamboree.
Although it’s not operating on as grand a scale, the farmers market in Winton is on the right track to fostering that same sense of community. As the rain slows and the sun comes out, it’s clear that residents are in no hurry to make a purchase and leave.
“People come to socialize — they stand and talk, or we provide chairs so they can sit down,” says Libby Jones, the volunteer manager of the Winton Farmers Market. “They enjoy their time.”