Eastern Wake News

Staff, farmers’ market fans ask Zebulon to pick up where grant leaves off

Strawberries, squash, zucchini and tomatoes from Rob’s Fresh Produce in Bailey made for a colorful display at the Zebulon Farm Fresh Market in May 2016.
Strawberries, squash, zucchini and tomatoes from Rob’s Fresh Produce in Bailey made for a colorful display at the Zebulon Farm Fresh Market in May 2016. amoody@newsobserver.com

Advocates of the Zebulon Farm Fresh Market have appealed to town leaders to include funding in the budget for the next fiscal year to keep the operation alive.

Staff’s proposed $9.9 million spending plan would dedicate $40,000 in the market’s fourth year. It’s money the town has never had to consider paying thanks to a John Rex Endowment grant.

But the grant runs dry this summer, and Parks and Recreation Director Greg Johnson said an extension of the grant is not an option. The intention was for the market to become self-sustaining by the end of the three-year grant window.

“It’s obvious that is not going to happen,” Mayor Bob Matheny said at a recent budget work session.

Commissioner Curtis Strickland asked Johnson if he had looked for local corporations to partner with the market, “like BB&T or Glaxo(SmithKline) or something like that,” Strickland said.

Johnson said his department would look into strengthening the market’s sponsorship program. Market manager Maurine Brown said she’s already been looking.

“There are some small grants that I’m actually working on, but most of the grants are between $2,000 and $5,000,” Brown said.

About $17,000 of the requested money is for operational expenses, and the other $23,000 is for part-time pay for Brown and an assistant. Staff is also projecting about $10,000 in revenue in the year ahead, mostly from sponsors.

Zebulon started the market in 2015. Its goals, aligning with the grant, are to make fresh foods available to children and families, to provide a place for local farmers to sell, to create partnerships that promote community health, and to teach healthful living.

“In addition to that, we’ve provided a sense of community – a place to socialize,” Johnson said. “We’ve met a lot of people I did not know before we started this farmers’ market.”

Strickland also wanted to know how the Zebulon market stacks up against others in the area.

Brown said one of the market’s larger produce vendors also sells at other local markets, including two larger ones in Raleigh. Over the first three weeks of the market season, she said, the vendor did his best business in Zebulon.

“We stack up really well, I want y’all all to know that,” Brown said. “I go to all these meetings and tell our numbers – how many last year, our average number – and they’re actually quite shocked that we have this kind of community support already for our farmer’s market.”

The most successful of the local farmer’s markets, Brown said, are town-supported.

Voicing support

During a public comment period, several speakers asked the board to keep the market alive. Among them were vendors, a customer and Zebulon Chamber of Commerce Director Denise Nowell.

Heavenly Hope Candles owner Karen Iradi told the board participating in the market the past two years had helped her cope with medical issues.

She now wants to sell her Wilson County home and move to Zebulon, to become part of the community she’s come to appreciate.

“I just wanted to let y’all know the market has really been a blessing to me and my life,” Iradi said. “I just believe in this market, and I think it does great things for the community.”

David Duong, owner of Oak Ridge Farms, is a new vendor this year.

He told the board that he saw such a jump in sales of his pasture-raised meats that he decided to return something to the community. So he donated a whole pig to the Farmer Foodshare program at Zebulon United Methodist Church.

“I also noticed, starting this business three years ago, that people are kind of wary because I am a young, new farmer,” Duong said. “They’ve had their reservations in purchasing high-quality meats from me. However, since I started at the Zebulon market, I really haven’t had any issues with people. They appreciate that they can get locally-grown meats and also come out and visit my farm.”