Is there any better place to see the change in American food than a farmers market on a Saturday morning?
They aren’t just a few boxes of produce on the back of a pickup truck anymore. You can buy vegetables with the dirt still clinging to their roots, and put your money right into the hand of the person who planted, watered, weeded and picked them.
The 20 years since the local-foods movement took off in the mid-1990s have shown an explosive interest in buying food directly from growers. USDA numbers show that farmers markets nationwide grew from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,268 in 2014. North Carolina ranked seventh in growth, from 86 markets in 2004 to 240 last year.
If you roam around stalls in the Charlotte area, those numbers don’t just mean more markets, they also mean more kinds of food: Locally raised meat from rabbit to chicken to pork and beef. Small-batch products, from pastas to breads to cheeses. Truly seasonal vegetables, from tiny spring peas to winter squash your great-grandmother would recognize.
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Our yearly list of local markets includes the sprawling Charlotte Regional Farmers Market and small weekly gatherings in towns like Mint Hill and Chester, S.C. Market styles also include the booths at 7th Street Public Market and the Atherton Market that incubate new businesses that grow into a new economy.
Which kind of market experience do you need?
International: The open-air building at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market has Asian farmers who bring sweet potato vines, long beans, bitter melon and all kinds of bok choy. And the Davidson Farmers’ Market, which has ballooned in just a few years to 36 vendors, has just added a weekly kimchi vendor.
Really, really local: Growers-only markets set rules on who sells the food and how far it can come, usually within 50 miles. The granddaddy of that concept around here is the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market in downtown Matthews, which sets stringent rules and checks vendors carefully every year. Get there early if you want lettuce.
New food experiences: The first couple of years were bumpy, but the 7th Street Public Market has hit stride with full occupancy, including new locations of established businesses like the butcher What’s Your Beef and small businesses that are getting bigger. Orrman’s Cheese Shop recently opened a location in Cary, and Pure Pizza is expanding with a restaurant location in Plaza Midwood in early summer.
Urban and thought-provoking: Lynn Shanklin Caldwell is the model of a food visionary. Since starting with a few tables in an open parking lot in Plaza Midwood, Caldwell has steered through an open field with the SouthEnd Tailgate Market and finally landed in a slick spot at Atherton Mill that has everything from coffee to local vegetables. Next up: Caldwell is developing the idea of a local-food district, bringing together concepts like food entrepreneurs, access and education.
Cozy and convenient: Need a handmade cake on your way to work or a vegan casserole on the way home? The tiny Mecklenburg County Market has been in the same building off Morehead Street near uptown since the 1920s. Today, it has a handful of vendors, including Beverly McLaughlin, the granddaughter of one of the founders, who sells vegan prepared foods with a Southern flavor.