Your guide to farmers markets

Staff WriterMay 12, 2010 

  • Learn what's in season at, click "Sustainable Ag Info" and then click links to charts of what's growing in North Carolina.

  • Roland McReynolds, executive director of Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, a nonprofit dedicated to local and organic agriculture, and Hallie Mittleman, who runs the Raleigh Downtown Farmers Market, offers these suggestions:

    Talk to market managers about the rules of the market to understand what is offered.

    Talk to farmers about whether they grew or raised what they are selling.

    Ask farmers how they handle pests and/or weeds.

    Don't quiz a farmer during the middle of market rush on a Saturday. Choose a slow time for an in-depth conversation.

    Find a list of Triangle farmers markets on Page 4D.

You might believe everything sold at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh is from North Carolina. Not true.

You might think that all the fruits and vegetables sold at the Carrboro Farmers Market are organic. Again, not true.

At the State Farmers Market, only fruits, vegetables and plants sold inside the open-air building have to be grown in North Carolina. In the enclosed building up above, there is no such rule so those tomatoes can be from California, those pears from Washington state.

Meanwhile at the Carrboro market, farmers use a range of growing practices from conventional to certified organic to noncertified organic.

The lesson here: Don't make assumptions. Ask questions.

More people are spending more of their grocery budgets on local foods. In response, the country has seen a 13 percent increase in farmers markets since 2008 to more than 5,200. In the Triangle, at least eight new markets have been added in that time, bringing the total to 27.

Farmers markets across the country and in the Triangle have a variety of rules. Some require farmers to grow the produce or raise the animals for the meat they sell within 50, 70 or 120 miles of the market. Some markets dictate who can sell the produce: only the farmer or an employee or a third-party. If you want to spend money on local foods and support local farmers, you have to be willing to get educated.

One of the first lessons is seasonality. Hallie Mittleman, who runs the new Raleigh Downtown Farmers Market in City Plaza, says the most common question from shoppers since the market opened April 28 is: "Where's all the produce?" Right now, the fresh produce for sale includes mainly strawberries, asparagus, green garlic, radishes, lettuce and greens.

When you are used to shopping at the grocery store, that may seem like sparse offerings. But in North Carolina, you won't find local peppers or squash until June, spinach can be grown only in spring or fall and tomatoes aren't available in the winter.

Beyond the seasons, the markets themselves are different. Likely, the largest divide is between the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, one of five state-run markets from Lumberton to Asheville, and smaller farmer-run markets, such as those in Carrboro, Durham and Wake Forest.

The state-run market in Raleigh had 3.5 million visitors last year. The market with its many buildings and items for sale can be confusing until you know the rules. About half of the main open-air building is the farmers market. But the vendors fall into three groups: farmers who grow everything they sell, farmers who grow half of what they sell and can buy from three other farmers all year, and farmers who hire people to sell for them.

Market manager Ronnie Best says the market recently distributed signs to the farmers that say whether they grow 100 percent or 51 percent of what they're selling.

Best says allowing farmers to buy from others extends what's available at the market for longer. For example, strawberries may be available longer because farmers from the Sandhills to Granville County who don't have stalls at the market can sell through other farmers.

In comparison, the Carrboro Farmers Market, which started 32 years ago, averages about 5,000 shoppers on Saturdays in the summer. Its rules require farmers' land to be within 50 miles of the market, which market manager Sarah Blacklin believes is the smallest radius required by any market in the state. The market rules require the farmers to sell directly to consumers and sell only what they raise or grow. That's key, Blacklin says, because farmers can answer questions about their growing practices.

"We think customers learn more by talking to farmers than relying on labels," Blacklin says.

Regardless of how you define local food - organic or conventional, grown in Chatham or Chowan counties - it starts with a conversation with a farmer. or 919-829-4848

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