The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

Travels to Farmers’ Markets in North Carolina
October Beans

October Beans

I’ve recently begun driving to farmers markets across the state to collect data for the economic aim of The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project led by Mitch Renkow, an Agriculture and Resource Economics Professor at NC State University. I enjoy the work for various reasons; it’s always good to leave familiar surroundings and explore different areas of our state, it’s interesting to talk with farmers, young and old, black and white, part-time and full time and perhaps the best perk, I get to buy from a wide variety of fresh produce, some of which I can’t find at my local market. A couple of weeks ago, I drove to a market far from my own community on a beautiful day with the deep blue sky hinting at fall. I drove through the small downtown, with a Lucky Strike tower climbing above all the other small storefronts. The community had primarily supported tobacco production and cigarette manufacturing, serving as a key location of the American Tobacco Company, which employed large numbers of city and county residents. It was the mainstay of the town’s economy until the American Tobacco Company’s sale and closer in 1994. My hand scribbled directions indicated that the market was further out, so I kept driving, my car winding around country roads that were lined with big oak trees choked with vines. After going a few miles and not seeing anything that resembled a farmer’s market, I stopped at a gas station and asked for directions. Behind the counter, two people stood smoking cigarettes and looking at me in some confusion as I asked if they knew where the farmers’ market was.

“The what?” they asked, as they clearly decided I was not from around here.

I explained to them again, thinking maybe it was my northern accent that was making things unclear. “What are you tryin’ to buy?” one man asked, now seeming concerned.

This was a bit more complicated, but at this point they already thought I was strange. As I explained that I was from UNC and surveying different farmer’s markets from around the state, the other man piped up, remembering where the market was. Though, he said, he wasn’t sure if they were still doing it.

I followed his directions, continuing further into the country, passing fields of red dirt that looked like it had recently been tilled. I noticed a small sign, announcing the market and pulled into a tiny dirt lot. There was a wooden structure with six or seven farmers under it, beginning to pull their cardboard boxes off of trucks and vans. I made my way over, and with a handshake and a smile introduced myself. Mitch Renkow had talked to the market manager by telephone earlier in the week, so the farmers were expecting me. They generously gave me their attention as they set up their goods; giant purple pearls of muscadines, last of the summer’s corn, freckled red apples, mustard greens, kale, boxes of figs and other fresh produce. Some farmers had already finished setting up, and invited me to sit on a crate while I asked them questions and scribbled down their answers on my clipboard. Like any conversation, where questions lead to topics which lead to stories which lead to actually getting to know someone, I began to listen about how they started farming, their family’s history, the price of land, the shrinking size of their farm as they sold it off acre by acre, the scarce number of customers at their market and how many of them could barely afford to make their gas money home. I couldn’t write fast enough and though I had already gotten down the answer I needed, I wanted to record their stories as well.

At this point, the market had officially begun, though only a few customers were milling about. One farmer, surrounded by his homegrown roasted peanuts, jars of light amber honey and rows of okra, interrupted me halfway through my set of fixed questions. “We need to move to a better location,” he said “look at this place – we’re not on a main road, no signs, not much parking. Whose gonna come?”

Another farmer told me that customers just weren’t willing to pay the prices:

One woman came over and asked about my potatoes. I told her a 1.25 a pound. “Well,” she said, “1.25? Not for that price.” and walked away. I remember that kind of stuff. So next time I went to the grocery store, I checked to see what they were selling them for. They had them at a 1.50!

I thought of Gary Grant, a speaker who visited the Politics of Food class, as one African American farmer told me how hard it had been for him in his early days of farming, through the seventies and eighties, to secure loans simply because of the color of his skin.

Despite all of this, the generosity of the farmers with their time and produce had obviously not been affected. One customer, who didn’t have enough cash to pay for a bag of sunset pink October Beans, was about to put them back when the farmer told him, “Take those beans back. Your credit is good here.” As he handed him his bag he told me, “We sell fresh produce at a good price.”

And there were a handful of customers that you could easily tell were regulars who enjoyed shopping at the market. As an older woman approached a table, the farmer cheerfully called out to her, “Hello Miss. Molly! How you doing today?” She walked away with three bags full of lima beans and with a smile looked at me and said, “I’ve got work to do with all these limas!” I listened as one man told a farmer how much his sick mother-in-law looks forward to coming to the farmers market because, he said, “it makes her feel good.”

I left with some beautiful muscadines and honey, both of which the farmers had almost refused to let me pay for.

As I drove home that day, through the beautiful North Carolina agricultural landscape that led back to the ubiquitous highways, I thought of how good and necessary it is to experience different parts of our state. It becomes easy to envision large crowds donned with canvas bags headed to the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning in our more affluent and left leaning Triangle community. Cities like Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Durham and Raleigh may be the leaders in the North Carolina local food movement, but as such, it’s important to remember other areas in our state and to make sure we don’t leave them behind. In order to truly build a long term, sustainable, local food economy, The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project recognizes it is essential to learn from and work with challenges that face different communities across the state of North Carolina. As cold weather approaches and the growing season winds down, I’ll stop traveling to visit markets, but I look forward to start surveying and learning from farmers throughout our state again in the spring.

Cinderella Pumpkins

Cinderella Pumpkins


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