The Durham Farmers’ Market – or at least some of its farmers – may fall victim to its own success.
When the market moved to the pavilion at Durham Central Park in 2007, it became the park’s twice-weekly anchor tenant and brought a new level of vibrancy to this downtown park. And people flocked there not just for the market, but for the new playground, food truck rodeos, craft markets and other events.
Developers took notice of this corner of downtown Durham. Construction is underway on the Liberty Warehouse project, which will bring a 246-unit apartment building to the corner of Foster and West Corporation streets. Construction has not yet started on 539 Foster, a 92-unit condo complex across Foster Street, which highlights the farmers market in its marketing material.
Construction on these two projects is expected to continue for another couple of years. Since construction started last fall, farmers are reporting a significant drop in sales, especially at the Wednesday market with its 3:30-6:30 p.m. hours that regularly coincide with construction noise and traffic.
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Judy Lessler of Harland’s Creek Farm reports her Wednesday sales have dropped 25 percent this year. George O’Neal of Lil’ Farm and president of the Durham Farmers’ Market board, says he’s down 25 percent at both Wednesday and Saturday markets. And Tom Hurtgen of Hurtgen Meadows Farm says he’s down at both markets, but 30 percent on Wednesdays.
The market is at a fragile juncture right now.
April McGreger, owner of Farmer’s Daughter Brand pickles and preserves
It’s not clear that the construction is the sole cause for the farmers’ decrease in sales.
A federal report released earlier this year indicates that sales have stagnated at farmers markets, roadside stands, pick-your-own farms and community-supported agriculture subscriptions. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farmers selling directly to consumers increased 5.5 percent while the value of sales declined by 1 percent. By comparison, the value of sales between 2002 and 2007 increased 32 percent.
Farmers who sell directly to consumers face increased competition from produce delivery services, online grocery shopping and more. And the Durham Farmers’ Market has its own unique pressures: farmers are competing for the cash in consumers’ pockets with food trucks and artists at Hunt Street Market and Durham Craft Market, both next to the farmers market on Saturday mornings.
“The market is at a fragile juncture right now,” said April McGreger, owner of Farmer’s Daughter Brand, which buys produce from farmers and sells pickles and preserves at the market.
Several years from now, when residents are streaming out of those buildings on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings, sales will likely return to normal or even increase for these farmers.
The question is will all the farmers survive until then. A 25 percent drop in sales is tough for a small business owner, especially farmers who face crop failures, more competition and small margins.
“We’re hoping everybody can hang on until we can reap the benefits of our success,” O’Neal said.
The 5-acre park is owned by the city and managed by the nonprofit Durham Central Park board; the market is the park’s main tenant. Both developers, per their agreements with the city, have agreed to make improvements to the park, such as building a sidewalk and a dumpster pad. The Liberty Warehouse developers donated $25,000 toward the park’s new playground. The 539 Foster developers agreed to donate $41,000 to Habitat for Humanity.
O’Neal and Hurtgen say they met with developers of both projects to talk about concerns related to construction noise, traffic and ways to support the market during these trying times.
“We will do our best not to jackhammer during market hours, but occasionally it’s just going to happen because we have time tables and schedules,” said Bryson Powell with Chapel Hill-based East West Partners, which is developing the Liberty Warehouse apartments. “We’re trying our best to be good neighbors.”
Powell said they did talk to farmers about ways to encourage the apartment residents to shop at the market, such as vouchers for new tenants and produce delivery to residents.
539 Foster developers, who released a statement in response to a request for an interview, promised to provide “directional and informational signage” to educate the public that the market and park are open during construction and help customers navigate to the park.
“We also will maintain an open line of communication with community members to explore additional ways the 539 Foster team, Durham Farmers’ Market, and Durham Central Park can work together for the mutual benefit of downtown Durham,” the statement said.
Farmers couldn’t get any concrete concessions from the developers on traffic, construction noise or work stoppages during market hours (although last Wednesday, there was little noise or traffic coming from the Liberty Warehouse site during the market).
My hope is that the developers continue and strive to become better neighbors to the farmers market, which is a primary reason this corner of Durham has become such a great location, location, location.
“The farmers market is our anchor tenant,” said Erin Kauffman, executive director of Durham Central Park and former manager of the farmers market. “They have done a lot to make the park desirable. They are going to make these residences desirable.”
My other hope is that the market, especially on Wednesdays, attracts more shoppers like Betty Thomas, 64, of Durham County, who was among the small crowd of shoppers last Wednesday.
“I’m here every Wednesday and every Saturday,” Thomas said. “I’d be here more if it was open more.”
Durham Farmers’ Market
The Durham Farmers’ Market is open 3:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 8 a.m.-noon Saturdays at Durham Central Park, 501 Foster St.