Bill Dow, the doctor of local food, dies at 67

Ex-physician was a leader of the Triangle’s local food movement

aweigl@newsobserver.comDecember 8, 2012 


Long-time Chatham organic farmer Bill Dow (cq) says that if they get enough rain, they will have good crops this year at his Ayrshire Farm (cq) organic farm in central Chatham county. Dow, who has lived in Chatham county for thirty years and who has been a certified organic farmer for ten years, in May, 2010 worked with the Triangle Land Conservancy to put twenty two acres of his organic farm in a conservation easement, a first for the Conservancy.HARRY LYNCH -

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserve

Anyone who spends time this weekend shopping at one of the about 30 farmers markets across the Triangle can thank Bill Dow.

The Chatham County organic farmer and former physician helped start the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, the area’s oldest farmer-run market. He also was a leader in the Triangle’s local food movement.

Dow, 67, died last week from unknown causes. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Dec. 15 at the Spring Friends Meeting house in Snow Camp.

Before the Carrboro Farmers’ Market started in 1978, few farmers grew produce to sell directly to consumers, restaurants didn’t list farms on their menus, and “locavore” was not part of the lexicon. Carrboro’s wildly popular farmers market could be considered the genesis of the Triangle’s eat-local scene, spawning dozens of farmer- and community-run markets from downtown Raleigh to Saxapahaw.

Dow was remembered this week by friends as a quiet, thoughtful man who lived by his convictions. Most of them knew him as a physician who became the state’s first certified organic farmer, believing he could do more good growing vegetables than dispensing medicines.

They may not have known that he had spent several years helping set up health clinics in eastern Tennessee. Or that his community organizing in those rural areas led him to help start farmers markets from Georgia to Arkansas. Or that he was involved in the effort to expand solar power in Chatham County, encouraging people to build solar-powered greenhouses and water heaters. Or that he was the first small organic farmer in the region to put 22 acres of his 30-acre farm under a conservation easement in perpetuity.

“He did so much,” said Daryl Walker, his partner, who had been with Dow for a decade. “He talked so little about it,” she said.

Love of medicine, farming

Dow was born in Ohio but grew up on a cattle and soybean farm near Meridian, Miss. He attended Vanderbilt University’s medical school and completed his residency there. At the time, Dow became involved in the Student Community Health Coalition, which put on health screenings in rural communities and helped local leaders find ways to improve the community’s health.

He decided that helping rural people find a market for crops other than tobacco would improve not only their standard of living but also their health. So he and others began organizing farmers markets across the Southeast. In the late 1970s, when Dow came to Chapel Hill, he worked with a couple of public health students to start the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. But starting the market wasn’t enough.

“I really had to make a decision for myself: to continue in medicine or go into farming,” Dow wrote in a letter Walker shared. “I loved both medicine and farming. But I couldn’t ask the rural potential producers to change ‘crops’ if I wasn’t willing to take the same risk.”

Gentlemanly ways

For the next 32 years, Dow farmed a handful of acres outside Pittsboro, selling his organic herbs, lettuces and blueberries on Saturdays at the Carrboro market. He was one of the first farmers to sell directly to restaurants, making deliveries twice a week to Lantern, Pazzo!, Nana’s and others.

Chefs and customers say they will miss Dow’s gentlemanly ways and quick wit, and his ending each conversation by asking about their mothers or their children. Among them is Sheila Neal, a former manager of the Carrboro market who now owns Neal’s Deli in Carrboro with her husband, Matt.

“Even though he didn’t practice medicine,” Sheila said, “he really cared for his customers – or patients.”

In addition to Walker, of Pittsboro, Dow is survived by a brother, John Dow, of Meridian, Miss., and several cousins.

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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