The tobacco fields around Archer Lodge are lush, the plants tall and topped with flowers.
In this rural corner of Johnston County, July has looked like this for decades, and as agriculture remains strong, many more summers will look the same.
But in this farming community, a farmers’ market proved a hard sell, forcing the Archer Lodge Farmers Market to close in the middle of its second year.
Mary Bevier, who owns Toad Song Farm and was one of the market’s founders and organizers, said a lack of vendors made it hard to attract patrons.
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“It was never a big, massive thing that got everyone’s attention,” Bevier said. “A couple tents and a few people milling about wasn’t enough to get people to stop.”
The highest vendor count, Bevier said, was five, but the number was usually just two or three. Of those, none typically offered the tables of produce commonly associated with farmers’ markets, instead selling plants and gourmet popcorn.
When polled a few years ago, Archer Lodge residents listed a farmers’ market as one of the top three things they wanted in their newly formed town. But when it came down to it, the market was largely overlooked, struggling through an inaugural season last year while hoping to make an optimistic run in 2016.
“I think people are so used to driving into Raleigh or the surrounding area to do their shopping,” Bevier said. “People tell me ‘I didn’t think to stop at the market,’ or ‘I keep forgetting to stop.’ ”
The state farmers’ market, Bevier said, was the hardest obstacle to overcome. Convincing local established farmers to sell their wares at a new market instead of a seven-days-a-week regional market was never successful. It became one of those chicken-or-egg questions; farmers wanted to see more customers before they committed their time, and customers wanted to see more farmers.
“Maybe our timing is just off for the Town of Archer Lodge,” Bevier said. “Maybe this is something we could try again later when there’s a little more interest from the community at large.”
Mayor Mike Gordon hoped the market would attract some of the young, health-conscious families moving into the area. But he said those same families commute around the region every day and perhaps find it easier to do their shopping at the state market.
“It takes two seconds to get off the interstate and get to the (state) market,” Gordon said. “The (Archer Lodge) market originally started with the help from the Johnston County Health Department as a way of promoting healthier living. I thought the trend of younger people moving into subdivisions would help drive the market and it would take off. There’s a big population living healthier lives than ever before.”
Gordon said he was surprised the market failed in such a historically agricultural area, but he conceded there was a big difference between a tobacco leaf and a home-grown tomato.
“You’d think a place like Archer Lodge would be good for a farmers’ market,” Gordon said. “Big farmers are major economic drivers, but it’s mostly corn and tobacco, not produce for a market.”
Both Gordon and Bevier kept the door open for a possible return of the market at some future date, but it wasn’t clear what exactly needed to change for a market to be viable in the community.
“I hope it’s not closed forever,” Gordon said. “It is an important part of healthier living.”
Bevier speculated that a permanent structure might be the kind of signal needed to show farmers and residents Archer Lodge is committed to a market.
“It needs a little more interest from the community at large,” Bevier said. “Grant money for a permanent structure might have actually helped quite a bit.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson