Many “fresh produce” signs welcome more and more North Carolinians each year to buy directly from farmers. Patronage at small markets and roadside stands is growing fast – a healthy trend. Our state’s four big farmer’s markets in Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro/Colfax and Raleigh serve more than a million customers a year.
Wake County has 77 direct marketing farm outlets, including 15 mid-sized farmers markets. At outlets like these across our state, farmers sell a wide range of products. Fruits and vegetables still top the list. Beef, pork, poultry and cheese are becoming more widely available.
Christmas trees, wreaths and value-added products such as strawberries made into jellies and jams are more available. Value-added in another form – organically grown – has premium value that many consumers embrace.
Kevin Hardison, a marketing specialist at the N.C. Department of Agriculture, believes that the renewed relationship between farmers and consumers has added to the scope and influence of the buy-direct movement. “Consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it’s grown,” he says. “Younger farmers especially see an important niche they can fill.” And sales at retail prices are always better for the farmer.
The farm-to-table movement should be actively encouraged. One of the main obstacles to growth is that both parties – the farmer and the consumer – too often are invisible to each other. Growers face confusing local regulations in locating a fresh produce stand. In most cases, the consumer has to drive by and see a stand to know it’s there.
North Carolina should also do a better job on wholesale distribution of North Carolina products and produce. Too often our stores carry only items from out-of-state even when we have North Carolina produce in season and grown just miles away. A vegetable or fruit picked yesterday in North Carolina is bound to be better than something harvested last week on the West Coast.
Governments should do more to make fresh food from North Carolina’s farms available. For example, the city of Raleigh is discussing redeveloping the Market and Exchange plazas between Fayetteville and Wilmington streets. Why not have a farmer’s market for local produce and products several days a week?
The Department of Agriculture runs an outstanding wholesale and retail market on Lake Wheeler Road. It is packed most weekends. Why not establish a second market on weekends at the State Fairgrounds? And why not have fresh produce for sale on Halifax Mall north of the legislative building on weekdays during good weather?
A key aspect of the farm-to-table movement is the search for creative solutions to place wholesome food from more farms on more family tables. Independent restaurants now boast of their local sourcing. Several supermarkets highlight whatever produce and products are from North Carolina. It is time that we make it even easier for North Carolina farmers to sell their fresh food to us all.
Charles Meeker is a former mayor of Raleigh and practices law in Raleigh.