As a boy, John Monroe sold plants by the side of the road, not as punishment but for enjoyment.
“There is nothing like people giving up their hard-earned cash to buy a plant,” he said.
Monroe now owns Architectural Trees in Bahama, where he raises and sells hundreds of species, including the Weeping European Hornbeam, Sawara Cypress, and Blue Spruce — plus blueberries.
And unlike that market, where only 6 percent of actual the farm vendors are from Durham County, the Roots Market is restricted to Durham farmers, including those new to agriculture. The market happens from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays in the parking lot of Northgate Mall, near the cinemas.
“We’re focusing on agriculture, on protein, produce, and plants,” said Monroe, who sold at the Durham Farmers Market for 11 years before leaving in 2010. “It gives real meaning to the word ‘local,’ to keeping your money in Durham.”
The Roots Market is also part of the Farmland Protection Advisory Board’s goal to preserve agriculture and open space in northern Durham County. In 2009, the county commissioners passed the board’s Agriculture and Farmland Preservation Plan, which reported that 242 Durham farmers managed more than 26,000 acres, about half the amount farmed in 1990.
“We have to keep farming viable,” says Kat Spann, who with David Crabbe owns Prodigal Farm in Rougemont. (She is also a past chairwoman of the farmland board.) Prodigal produces goat cheese, which is sold at the South Durham Market on N.C. 55. However, this year Prodigal’s application to sell at the Durham Farmers Market was rejected.
The Durham Farmers Market also rejected Cindy Hamrick’s application. She owns and operates Carolina Farmhouse Dairy, a small first-generation farm near Bahama that produces organic yogurt from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows. She sells her yogurt at the Durham Roots Market.
“I love the philosophy of the Durham Roots Market,” says Hamrick, who also sells at the Carrboro Farmers Market. “I hope we can get more vendors to get the heartbeat going.”
The Durham Farmers Market has strict rules about which farmers can get a coveted stall in Central Park. Farmers must produce their own goods on land within a 70-mile radius. The South Durham Market pools its vendors from with 50 miles.
And seniority plays a large role; there is a minimum number of weeks a farmer must sell at the market to qualify for what would be known in the academic world as tenure. Once a farmer is in, and consistently adheres to the rules, he or she can stay for years. The South Durham Market, says Spann, requires vendors to reapply every year.
In selecting its vendors, the Durham Farmers Market tries to ensure a wide variety of goods are sold (although at certain times of year, everyone has tomatoes). These rules, which are approved by the market’s board of directors, can exclude small farmers who may sell only one crop — “the person who has just a field of sweet corn,” says Will Wilson, who is on the farmland board. Many Durham farmers fall into this category; according to the 2009 farmland report, half of the county’s farmers sold less than $2,500 in goods per year.
Durham Farmers Market Manager Jenny Elander acknowledges that as the market has grown quickly. And with the construction of the Liberty Apartments and other projects nearby, parking is tight and vendor space is tighter.
“We’re full and we have trouble accepting everyone,” Elander said. “We wish the Durham Roots Market all the best.”
The right mix
The Roots Market doesn’t face the same space challenge — Northgate parking is ample — but finding the right mix of vendors is essential. “We don’t want a market with just lettuce and berries,” said Kaylee Sciacca, Roots Market manager.
The economics of a farmers market are “delicate,” Spann said. It needs an initial mass of vendors to attract customers. And customers want a lot of different vendors to choose from. However, if there are too many vendors (or too many selling the same item) the dollars are spread too thin.
Last weekend, the Roots Market featured cheese, yogurt, produce, meat, eggs – and trees.
Farmers markets grow slowly, although Durham could finally be large enough to support three such ventures. Monroe, also a farmland board member, started selling at the Durham Farmers Market in 1999, its second year. He was one of six vendors, he says, before “it turned into the mega-experience.”
By contrast, the Roots Market is targeting people who want to buy their food and get on with their day. “It’s for the hunter not the stroller,” Monroe said. “We’re trying to be an old-fashioned market.”