Local Food Movement Gains Momentum
Life doesn’t get much better than standing in a field of strawberries on an April morning unless you get to bite into a huge ripe berry and let its sun-warmed fruit fill your mouth.
“Now that’s an experience you just don’t get from a grocery store berry,” says a smiling Taylor Williams, Moore County agricultural extension agent, as he savors a berry at Pressley Farms Berry Patch.
Strawberries, a harbinger of spring, will be ready for the opening of the local farmers markets mid-month, according to Williams.
Williams, who met with Carthage farmer Richard Pressley to survey three acres planted with nearly 50,000 strawberry plants, said that some plants showed signs of stress from the unseasonably high temperatures last week, but he expects the loss to be minimal.
“A heat wave is just one of the vicissitudes of farming,” says Williams. “It can shorten the harvest, but hopefully we’ve dodged the bullet since this heat wave was not prolonged. The plants have a good fruit set so there should be a great harvest.”
Strawberries will be one of the many attractions at the opening of the area’s farmers markets later this week. The spring markets will also carry asparagus, greenhouse tomatoes, peppers, burpless cucumbers, hydroponic lettuce, sweet potatoes, vegetable seedlings, cut flowers, perennials, hanging baskets, herbs, baked goods, pasture meat, chicken, farm-fresh eggs and crafts.
“The farmers market has replaced the grocery store for many of our customers,” says Harry Webster, manager of the Moore County Farmers Market Association, which holds three markets a week from April through October.
“They come to one market and discover everything our farms offer, and before you know it they are coming three times a week for the freshest products,” he says. “Our farmers can only sell what they grow; it can’t be trucked in from another location.”
Local Food Movement Growing
Williams says this increased awareness for buying and eating local motivates more farmers to join markets in the community.
“We have a tremendous demand in our communities,” says Williams. “We have more people wanting markets near their home and work than we have farms participating and manpower. It’s really a perfect opportunity for a farmer to get into the direct-to-consumer market. They need all the opportunities they can find to get their product to market.”
Williams says that on average a farmer will reap $300 weekly for the 20 weeks of markets.
“That may sound like a lot, but it barely covers their investment and expenses, and if there’s a problem with the crop, they lose it all,” he says.
Pick-your-own fields and farm stands have traditionally helped supplement farmers’ income, but according to Gary Priest, manager of the Sandhills Farmers Green Markets, there’s nothing like some new ideas and good old competition to help everyone.
“The more markets and the more vendors, the better,” he says. “We learn a lot from each other, what sells, what doesn’t, and how to market our products, so it really is a good situation for everyone.”
Aberdeen Market to Open
The Sandhills Farmers Green Market, which started last year with one market at Sandhills Community College, is opening an additional market at the train depot in Aberdeen in early May.
“There’s been a huge demand in that area and we’re glad to be able to serve it,” says Priest. “The town has been extremely supportive, providing utility hookups and a wonderful location that offers flexibility as the market grows.”
According to Kathy Liles, planning director for Aberdeen, the idea of bringing a farmers market to town has been “percolating for awhile.”
“Our focus is to provide healthy food and healthy lifestyles for our residents and to bring attention to our downtown core area,” she says. “We hope they come to buy the freshest products, mingle and make it part of their weekly routine.”
Today, getting produce to the consumer more efficiently and cost-effectively is what it’s all about.
“We have more markets than we had three years ago,” says Williams. “But one barrier we faced was making local produce more accessible to time-strapped consumers who couldn’t visit farmers markets. It [a cooperative] was an opportunity waiting to happen in Moore County.”
The new Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative, the long-time dream of Fenton Wilkinson, the cooperative’s co-founder and general manager, is an effort to meet that demand.
The co-op, which has over 700 members, is a commercial enterprise that is owned and controlled by participating farmers, workers and customers. Members pay for either a nine- or 17-week subscription to a box of locally grown fruit and vegetables that can be picked up at a predesignated “gathering center” on set days of the week.
The cooperative says it offers farmers a long-term, secure market for their crops, at a price that ensures them a comfortable living while trying to satisfy the highest percentage of local food needs, with local foods.
The cooperative’s goal, according to Jan Leitschuh, co-founder and farm liaison, “Is to build and strengthen our community and keep local dollars circulating within the Sandhills. We’re trying to grow the local food scene and are actively promoting all the local food venues and markets.”
Leitschuh says many of the area’s restaurants, including Ashten’s, Elliott’s on Linden, Chef Warren’s and Nature’s Own “are leading lights in the community” and important participants in the buy local, eat fresh food movement.
These restaurants, the new cooperative and the farmers markets are encouraging greater consumption of farm-fresh products by making them more accessible.
Customers Are Ready
Those dedicated to eating seasonally value local as their primary food criterion. That is why even during the long winter months, the Moore County Farmers Market at the Armory Sports Complex maintained winter hours, to the delight of those who made a visit.
“I came every week, wouldn’t miss it,” says Lora Gisler, of Vass. “It didn’t matter how cold or nasty, this was my springtime when I came here.”
She visited each Thursday to select greenhouse tomatoes, peppers and Bibb lettuce from Spahr’s Produce Farm and pasture meat and chicken and farm fresh eggs from John Council.
“These guys endured the winter out here huddled in their trucks to sell to us,” says Gisler. “Getting to know them and supporting them is the least we can do. When I buy here I know who grows it and where it comes from — it’s not trucked across the country. This is just the best, and I can’t wait for the season to be in full swing.”
Claudia Watson is a Pinehurst freelance writer and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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