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Charlotte farmers markets grow with consumers

Farmers markets don’t change much, right? The same seasons spin by every year, the same strawberries ripen in May and tomatoes redden in July.

Maybe so, but this year, change is part of the agenda. Now that words like “local” and “sustainable” have taken root, many Charlotte-area farmers’ markets are evolving to meet new demands.

Traditional Saturday-morning markets, like the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market and the Davidson Farmers Market, may look the same, but they’re drawing newcomers who use markets to evaluate whether to move here, and regular shoppers who now expect staples like meat and dairy, not just salad makings. Other markets are finding niches and bringing in new personnel.

“Farmers markets help sway people,” says Matthews’ manager Pauline Wood. “They’re part of the quality of life of an area.”

Under new management

Fred Cole is still reeling from his first Saturday as manager of the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market:

“I never expected 6,000 people – before noon,” he admits.

Cole can be forgiven for being a little overwhelmed: After 34 years in the same house in upstate New York and six years managing a farmers’ market co-op near Albany, he came here less than a month ago, just as the busy season was cranking up.

He’s also stepping into a job that had been done by the same person for 29 years, and a market that has changed drastically since it opened in the mid-1980s. The market is struggling with issues from a hidden location to a mix of local farmers and vendors who buy and resell produce that may be out of season.

“My to-do list grows a page every day,” he says. Updated electrical systems, a PA, an ATM – the market needs a lot of help. Even the Facebook page hadn’t been updated in more than a year.

The state, which owns the land and runs the market, understands there are a lot of questions about how the market should operate. Ron Moore, assistant director of facilities with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, expects Cole to spend the summer evaluating what the market needs.

“The farm aspect of Mecklenburg County has dramatically reduced its footprint in the last 30 years,” he says. “We’re just trying to say, ‘Where do the citizens of Mecklenburg want this market to go?’”

Cole plans to put together an advisory committee of shoppers and vendors to help with ideas.

“This market has so much potential,” he says. “It’s incredible.”

He wants to stop one rumor right away: Despite reports that the city or state have considered relocating, “This market is not going to close,” he insists. “It’s not going to move.”

Moving up in uptown

There was a lot of skepticism when the 7th Street Public Market officially opened last spring: Did uptown need a fancy food boutique?

It’s been a year of constant change, with some well-known local businesses opening – and quickly closing – and a couple of changes in management.

Today, the market seems to be settling in. The new executive director, Mike Restaino, has 40 years of retail experience. He expects 17 of the 20 spaces to be filled soon, with some vendors, like Not Just Coffee, opening more locations.

While the market has two produce vendors and the Center City Green Market is bringing local produce on Saturdays, the market has evolved, Restaino says.

“We have to have the produce, that’s part of our mission. But at the same time, being uptown, they don’t necessarily come here and go home with a large bag of produce. How do you balance it?”

He’s particularly excited about partnerships among the vendors: Pure Pizza pies are often topped with vegetables from Greeneman Farms and Meat & Fish Co. seafood fills Bonsai Fusion Sushi.

He also likes that customers are a mix of locals and visitors.

“It’s kind of becoming a community gathering place,” he says. “You’re seeing the same faces and they’re bringing their friends. And when they’re leaving, you hear people saying they didn’t expect to find all this.”

Milling around

Of all the local markets, Atherton Market manager Lynn Caldwell has come the furthest from where she started:

“Three tents and a couple of tables – we laugh about that a lot.”

Approaching the market’s third anniversary in its third location, the old trolley barn on South Boulevard, Caldwell has grown Atherton into the definition of an urban market.

“We want to give people a more European experience of shopping,” she says. That means there are prepared foods, fresh foods and local produce, but also events, like dinners and cooking classes, that draw people.

Since Atherton is privately owned with a paid manager, it has been able to experiment. For instance, it’s the local spot for Farmer Food Share, a program that takes donations of money and fresh food to distribute in low-income areas that lack food access.

While there are still farmers, there also are stands like Atherton Food Hub, which gathers and sells produce from farms and community gardens.

Caldwell also hopes to add another kind of food hub, which enables businesses to get larger quantities of food from farmers that can be used to make local products. That allows farmers to stay in the field and grow more.

“We have new customers every single day,” she says. “Even when we have a slow day, we have new customers.”

Purvis: 704-358-5236
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