NC at No. 10 in country for farmers markets; Rowan adds its share

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 15, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — North Carolina ranks 10th in the United States for its number of farmers markets, and those who run markets in Rowan say they’re thriving here.
North Carolina now has 217 recorded markets, according to the 2011 National Farmers Market Directory. Nationwide, more than 1,000 new markets were recorded in the past year.
The directory results were released in advance of National Farmers Market Week, which began last Sunday and ends today.
Darrell Blackwelder, director of the Rowan County Cooperative Extension, said there are several reasons why farmers markets are popular in this state.
“We can grow every vegetable in North Carolina,” Blackwelder said. “We can grow anything from artichokes to celery to beets. A lot of states can’t do that.”
He said agriculture has historically been important to North Carolina — and it still is. It contributes $70 billion annually to the state’s economy, accounts for 18 percent of its income and employs more than 17 percent of its work force.
Alan Goodman, who runs the China Grove Farmers Market at the Roller Mill, said North Carolina is “rich in agriculture.”
In the second year of his farmers market, he said, more people are showing up to buy fresh produce from local growers.
“Our society is more educated to the benefits of eating healthy and supporting local agriculture over shipped-in agriculture,” Goodman said.
Last year, the market had an average of 200 to 230 customers each Friday evening from early May through early October. That average is reaching 225 to 300 per week this year.
The market usually has about nine vendors, who are required to grow at least 50 percent of the produce they bring. The other 50 percent can be purchased elsewhere, but vendors must label where the produce comes from.
Harry Agner, manager of the Salisbury-Rowan Farmers Market, agreed with Goodman that there’s a growing interest in healthy eating and local foods.
“This is our eighth year in this location, and we’ve grown every year,” Agner said. “On Saturdays this year, we’ve turned vendors away because we don’t have space for them.”
He said about 1,000 people typically visit the market on Saturday mornings, when it has an average of 35 vendors. Wednesday mornings, about 22 or 23 vendors set up shop on average.
From April through September, Salisbury-Rowan market offers fruit, vegetables, meat products, baked goods and crafts.
Last year, it also started a winter market that will be open only on Saturdays through mid-December. Shoppers there find greens, beets, turnips and sweet potatoes along with more baked goods and craft items.
Two smaller farmers markets also have cropped up in Rowan County. One is held on Thursdays at midday at Salisbury’s Rowan Regional Medical Center. Another began on Saturday mornings last year at the corner of Henderson and North Long streets in East Spencer.
Markets with few vendors sometimes struggle to stay open, Blackwelder said, when individual growers run out of fresh produce in mid-summer. Allowing the vendors to sell some items they’ve purchased can help extend their stock.
He said the Salisbury-Rowan market is taking a survey of its customers this weekend to find out their demographics, opinions and shopping habits.
“A lot of young adults are interested in fresh fruits and vegetables, but if you look at our past surveys, the majority of people taking them are women between the ages of 55 and 65,” Blackwelder said.
Brenda Sutton, cooperative extension director in Rockingham County, runs a program called the “Produce Lady” at North Carolina farmers markets to educate people about selecting, preserving and preparing fresh produce.
“I think we’re seeing some shifts here,” Sutton said. “Parents of young children are becoming acutely aware of the obesity epidemic and other health concerns. But many young adults really haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to use these kinds of food.”
Blackwelder said the Salisbury-Rowan market sometimes offers cooking demonstrations with the food sold there.
If shoppers don’t have cash, they can pay with WIC, senior vouchers or debit and credit cards, making this market one of the few statewide to accept all three.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
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