Venture into downtown Carrboro on any Saturday morning between March and October and you will find one of the Triangle's most vital and thriving institutions. It's not town hall. It's not the police station. The lively crowd of young and old, children and dogs in tow, has come for one thing: the Carrboro Farmers' Market.
The market, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is a place where people meet and greet; where you can find anything from the region's freshest produce to homemade cheeses, meats, baked and canned goods, and crafts from woodworking to knit scarves to metal lawn sculptures. The market serves many functions but perhaps most importantly, it provides the crucial connection between producer and consumer, farmer and community.
Farmers' markets have been growing in numbers and popularity nationwide over the last decade. According to the USDA's National Farmers' Market Directory, in 2002 there were over 3,000 markets operating in the US. There are many benefits associated with farmers' markets, for the community and the farmer alike. Consumers benefit from having consistent access to fresh, healthy produce and the opportunity to learn more about how their food is grown. The community benefits from keeping food dollars local - supporting the local economy and job base - and maintaining the viability of small farms, an important yet struggling player in the world of modern agriculture. And in a larger sense, keeping these farms alive is one way to preserve an area's rural character and natural resources, an issue of particular importance in the development-hungry Triangle.
Benefits to Farmers
Farmers, whose biggest challenge may be finding a consistent and profitable outlet for their products, benefit from directly marketing and selling to consumers. "Inherently, the big issue between wholesale [to restaurants or supermarkets] and retail [at farmers market] is half the price, same work," comments Steve Moize, who sold at the Carrboro Farmers' Market from 2000 to 2002. Selling directly to the consumer allows farmers to command a higher price for their goods, as well as providing a unique opportunity to form relationships --and trust--with their customers.
Moize says that personal interaction with his customers is the single most satisfying element of selling at market. "You get the inner validation for your week's worth of work. Those people come out, they talk to you...they're supporting you on so many levels other than just financial. It's not just about the produce and the money. The community gets what you are trying to do." On days that he sold at market, Moize actually employed someone to go with him so that he could spend as much time as he wanted to talking to his customers. "They're not just business relationships…I have friendships with these people, and I can't think of anything more valuable than that," he adds.
Local farmers Alex and Betsy Hitt have been selling at the Market since 1986. Although in the past they sold half of their crops wholesale to supermarkets or restaurants, they now sell 85% of their yearly output at the market. Says Alex, "we realized that our style and comfort level was much better in the farmers' market arena, and so we moved more emphasis to the farmers' market and away from [wholesaleing]."
Alex has served on the Market's board of directors for 14 years, and as its president for 6 of those years. While helping to manage the market, one thing has become clear, he says. "The customers want to know and talk to the people who are producing the stuff. And as soon as they feel like all they are dealing with is employees, then their trust in the quality and honesty of the folks goes down. You know, they can go to a grocery store and talk to an employee."