Food & Drink

Are farmers markets dying? Charlotte’s are hurting.

A system of smaller markets, such as the Matthews Community Farmers Market, supplements the larger Charlotte Regional Farmers Market.
A system of smaller markets, such as the Matthews Community Farmers Market, supplements the larger Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

What’s wrong with Charlotte’s farmers markets?

Pick one:

▪ Too many markets fighting for too few farmers.

▪ Not enough markets where people need them most, particularly in neighborhoods that struggle with access to fresh food.

▪ Shoppers staying away because they can’t find what they want, can’t tell who’s really selling local food, or because the food they find costs too much.

▪ Nothing links the markets up, so customers and farmers can have an easier time finding food.

“Every market in Charlotte says that attendance on Saturday mornings is down,” says Lynn Caldwell, a local-food activist who has founded several local markets, including Atherton in South End.

Now the city’s trying to figure out what’s not working and find ways to fix it.

In December, Tom Warshauer and John Short, who work for the city, pulled together more than 50 people – farmers to chefs to neighborhood activists.

The result is the start of a city-wide project to look at how Charlotte gets its food and whether that system needs to change – although, as Warshauer points out, the answer might not be the city doing anything. “It might be letting the private sector solve it.” Farmers markets are just one part of that equation, but a significant one.

“We don’t need to develop more markets,” says Caldwell, whose consulting business, Suede Onion, helped the city with the December study.

“We need to figure out how to connect the ones we have.”

The Rosa Parks Farmer's Market held its grand opening on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in the parking lot the the Mecklenburg County Northwest Health Department. According to Dr. Marcus Plescia, Mecklenburg County Health Department director, the farmer'

Markets are up, but is traffic slowing?

Nationally, the number of farmers markets are still booming. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national directory lists 8,669 in 2017, almost double the 4,385 it listed in 2006.

But sales may be slowing.

While USDA surveys still show sales increasing each year, they’re no longer growing at double digits, as they were up to 2007.

That may be a sign of local food systems maturing. There are more ways to get food directly from farms now. People can “subscribe” to farms and get a portion of the harvest each week (those are called community-supported agriculture, or CSAs), for example. And more people are finding local farmers’ wares in their regular grocery stores these days, since some farmers find it more efficient to sell to wholesalers (who sell to groceries) than to spend Saturday mornings in markets.

Market traffic is slowing in North Carolina, says Ron Moore, who runs the state’s farmers market system for the N.C. Department of Agriculture.

There’s a lot more competition in the marketplace now.

Ron Moore, N.C. Department of Agriculture

“It had been growing until about the last two years,” he says. “And it’s kind of leveled off. There’s a lot more competition in the marketplace now.”

The biggest market in this area is Charlotte’s state-run regional market on Yorkmont Road. It has always struggled, both with access and its mission. It’s on a small road near the airport that’s not visible from interstates and has no public transportation. It also has a mix of local farmers and resellers – people who bring in food they’ve bought elsewhere, rather than grown themselves – which can confuse shoppers who show up specifically to buy locally grown food.

Its traffic is far below the other three state markets, in Raleigh, Asheville and the Triad.

With 45,000 square feet of retail space, Charlotte’s gets about a half-million visits a year. The Piedmont-Triad market, near Greensboro, has the same square footage but gets 1.8 million visitors. And Raleigh, with three restaurants, a wholesale terminal and a location close to downtown, pulls in 3.5 million visitors.

“We are the smallest,” says Amie Newsome, who manages the Charlotte regional market, though she says the market’s still getting more visitors and vendors each year. “The other markets, they’ve got restaurants, they’ve got wholesale operations. Two of them have (plant) nurseries. All we have are just our vendors.”

What links the markets?

When Short and Warshauer started looking closely at Charlotte’s food sytems, the first thing they had to accept was that they wouldn’t be able to change anything about the Charlotte Regional Market: The state runs it and has no interest in moving it or changing the way it runs.

But there are a lot of other markets here: Indoor markets like Atherton and the 7th Public Street, private markets like Kings Drive and the year-old Cotswold market, and a long list of community markets, like Davidson and Matthews. Figuring out how to help those is part of what this project is about.

Having a wide variety of markets can be good, because different markets serve a variety of needs.

People go to farmers markets for different reasons. Some people go because they can get produce cheaper. Some people go for convenience. Some people get that sense of local pride – ‘Hey, I’m doing my part, I’m supporting local agriculture.’

John Short, Neighborhood and Business Services Department

“People go to farmers markets for different reasons,” says Short. “Some people go because they can get produce cheaper. Some people go for convenience. Some people get that sense of local pride – ‘Hey, I’m doing my part, I’m supporting local agriculture.’ 

Having so many choices may also be a problem: Markets are growing but the pool of farmers isn’t. And the fastest way to turn off shoppers is to have them show up on a Saturday morning and not find food. If markets spent more time communicating with each other and with customers, including restaurants and food makers, about what’s available where, everyone would benefit, says Caldwell.

“The markets here don’t play well together,” she says. “It’s ‘We’re the best, we’re the one – we’re Cotswold, or we’re NoDa.’ And that’s great. You’re serving your neighborhood.” But if shoppers leave frustrated, or farmers show up and don’t find customers, it stresses the local food system.

Caldwell would like to see a system that connects the markets. Other areas of the state have those: In Western North Carolina, ASAP (the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project) regularly updates its website and prints local guides that connect farms, food producers, restaurants and shoppers. In Eastern North Carolina, Eastern Carolina Organics lists on its website what’s available from specific farmers.

What comes next?

The city expects to hire a firm in the next few weeks to devise a plan that would address four areas: The market system and how it relates to consumers and farmers, the agricultural economy, food access and security, and economic development.

“This is the time,” says Caldwell. “If this doesn’t move forward, I don’t know what will happen. I hope it’s going to be something very ambitious.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

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