A cluster of ominous gray clouds stood guard over the Carrboro Farmers’ Market as rain drops hurried to greet the early bird customers at 7 a.m. However, the gloomy weather was not enough to deter Patricia Graham, whose family has been selling its crafted cedar products here for over 35 years.
For the Graham family, who sells everything from carpenter bee traps to coat hangers to tables, spending Saturdays at the market is a family tradition. The cedar craft has deep roots in the family, passed down through three generations now.
“When you marry into the family, you’re into the market,” joked Graham, who married into this tradition almost 23 years ago.
The family sees this sense of tradition in its customers, as well.
“I have watched, with our family especially, the grandparents have been buying from us and now the children are coming and buying and now they’re having children.” Graham continued, “They’re not just a customer, they’re friends. And you get invited to their weddings or you get invited over to barbecue or they come out and visit on the farm. So I feel like it ties in the community quite well.”
The Triangle Area plays host to over 30 farmers’ markets, which provide residents and visitors the opportunity to purchase fresh, locally-grown and produced products, often directly from the people who grow and make them. These markets are committed to selling products grown and produced locally, often within a certain radius of the market.
Farmers’ markets can replace detached supermarket shopping with a direct connection between the land, farmers and consumers. Casey Roe, Marketing and Sales Manager for Funny Girl Farm in Durham, believes this connection is what really makes farm stands and markets like hers stand out.
“(It’s) the community vibe and the experience of getting to know your farmer,” Roe said. “We really make a point at the farm stand of asking everyone how their day is going, getting to know their names and their dogs’ names and their kids’ names and what they get back from us is more of an understanding about how food is grown and raised and more connection to food and to the land.”
Roe noted the farm stand can also serve as a friendly meeting place for the exchange of information about how to cook certain dishes and which products they are trying out or really enjoy.
Local markets offer educational programs to foster this connection between consumers and the process of growing and producing their food. Some offer field trips and summer camps, while others such as the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market feature everything from cooking demonstrations to mushroom presentations to micrograinary exhibitions.
The Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market is eagerly preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary on Saturday, May 19. The event will recognize the founders of the market and vendors who have been selling their products there for 10 years. The celebration will be complete with live music and free samples from bakery vendors in lieu of a cake.
Manager of the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market Kate Underhill said this market and others not only bring fresh and healthy food to consumers but also keep money in the local economy. Many local farmers and vendors are finding it difficult to keep product sales up in the face of ever-increasing globalization and the competition of supermarkets. The markets present an opportunity for farmers to foster a loyal consumer base.
Melodie Pugh, director of marketing at Northgate — which houses the Durham Roots Farmers’ Market — spoke to these challenges and the importance that consumer loyalty plays in the market business.
“If you really appreciate the farmers and what they bring to our table, the food that goes in our mouths and how they cultivate it, the organic-ness that goes behind it and all the processes, you know, people are pretty loyal in that regard,” she said.
However, she also recognized the sometimes harsh reality of a fluctuating consumer base.
“Sometimes people come (to the market) and it’s not enough,” she said.
Some markets encourage consumers to invest in the farm through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Membership involves an upfront seasonal investment, after which members can buy products with this credit. The program not only keeps customers coming back but also allows farmers to invest in supplies for the upcoming season without so much uncertainty.
Consumers, on the other hand, enjoy the intimacy and atmosphere of the markets and the variety of products offered. They can shop for fresh vegetables, artisan coffee mugs, locally grown coffee and all-natural body products.
Carrboro vendor Ann Marie Thornton’s craft alcoholic ciders even come with a bit of American history in each sip. If you asked her, she might tell you about the rich history of apple growing in the South all the way back to the time of British colonization.She hopes to bring back the forgotten flavors of the past by growing about 75 different kinds of apples.
“We decided to grow apples that people would have had on their farms 100 years ago, but that means that we’ve planted it and we don’t know what it tastes like or when it will ripen,” she said.
The markets serve as a reflection of the Triangle’s emphasis on sustainability and environmentally-conscious lifestyle, which is strengthened by the presence of universities that can support research and environmental initiatives.
“I think it’s all about sustainability and Durham, particularly, is all about local, local, local,” Pugh said. “We need this type of market. We need them more and more so our community can grow and prosper and all the locals can enjoy it.”