The State Farmers' Market in Raleigh hails from a time before farmers' markets were part of the local and sustainable food movement. For the most part, the market was founded and is run in order to support North Carolina agriculture and commerce. You are less likely to find heirloom vegetables here or small farmers with naturally grown produce. What you will find is a teeming marketplace and an amazing showcase of the sheer quantity and variety that the state produces.
The market is one of five run by the state agriculture department, the others being in Charlotte, Asheville, Greensboro and Lumberton. It was started in 1955 on Hodges Street and moved to its current location in 1991. The market, which acts as a wholesale market as well as a retail market for the public, is huge at 75 acres, with 35,000 rental spaces for vendors. Driving into it is like driving into a military compound.
The market runs every day year-round (except Christmas). It has two warehouse-sized structures for selling produce to the public, a building for pork, a restaurant, a garden center and a large section of one of the shelters dedicated to nursery style flowers and plants. There are numerous buildings at the back of the market for wholesale sellers, and this part of the market is open 24 hours a day year-round.
A few months ago, when I was talking to a local chef about buying seasonal produce from the Raleigh market, she scoffed and said, Yeah, well, you can buy pineapples in January at that market. And it's true. For years, the State Farmers' Market has served as a huge produce market, but the vendors do not necessarily grow what they sell. Much of it is bought wholesale.
There are two buildings selling produce to the public, one of them enclosed and the other open air. The outdoor structure is reserved for produce that is grown in North Carolina, and the people that sell there certainly represent N.C. farms. To get a space there, you have to have proof that you are a farmer growing produce in North Carolina, but it is not a local market in the same sense that the other smaller markets in the area are.
On a recent visit in late September, I was confronted at many stands by a sea of uniform looking tomatoes and was surprised to see so many peaches when they were totally absent from both the Carrboro and Durham markets. I was also perplexed by the signs at some stands declaring that the okra or tomatoes were home grown, which is kind of like when a restaurant advertises its food as homemade. If you aren't making it, then who is? I later found out that while the produce is supposed to be grown in North Carolina, there is no rule barring the vendors from buying their produce wholesale, rather than growing it themselves.
All of that said, the Raleigh market is a great shopping experience if you take them at their word about where the food is grown or just don't mind that much if everything is not as local as at the other markets. Because the market is so big, it's easy to wander slowly, making selections and enjoying the atmosphere. Where else can you expect to find your local produce, your meat, your potted plants, your occasional pineapple, and maybe get a picture framed while you're at it? The indoor market has a couple of stands that sell homemade jams, and there is one that sells a decent selection of N.C. wines.
The other thing that must be said is that the market is getting better all the time. Just in the last week, Dogwood Farms started selling their all-natural pork at the market, and while the rules aren't as stringent as either the Carrboro or Durham markets, an effort is being made to promote local farms and local produce. The food is definitely better and more local than what you'll get at your average grocery store. And the bargains are there--last week I spotted red peppers priced at two for $1. Compare that to $2.99 each at your local Harris Teeter, and you'll be rushing to support this farmers' market.
Carrboro Farmers' Market
Carrboro Town Commons adjacent to Town Hall at 301 W. Main St.
7 a.m.-noon Saturdays from late March to mid-December
3:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. Wednesdays from late April to mid-October
Lawn at Southern Village on Market Street
3:30-7 p.m. Thursdays from early May to early October
Saturday mornings at the Carrboro Farmers' Market are a mob scene. Whether it's the type of mob scene that feels like a celebration of the unique personality of this vibrant community or the type that gives you panic attacks depends entirely on your point of view.
If you're a young family with many friends in the community, the type that enjoys gathering on the lawn at Weaver Street, who's excited and comforted by the energy produced by so much good feeling, you'll love it. It's like a vegetable folk festival. If you are easily overwhelmed, tend to feel like you don't fit in in crowds of people reveling in the goodness of their lives, or are just a little grumpy, I highly recommend the Wednesday market. The choices at the Wednesday market are fewer, but the feel is decidedly more low key.
Located on the pretty green square of land next to Town Hall, Carrboro has by far the most successful farmers' market of its kind in the area, and I would venture to say that it's one of the most successful in the country. Unlike the Raleigh market, Carrboro is completely vendor-run. It was founded by farmers and is set up specifically to support small, local farms. In the late 1970s, the town of Carrboro was investigating ways to make sure downtown remained vibrant. As part of that, the town successfully sought funding from the N.C. General Assembly to build a shelter for a farmers' market. The market's first location and shelter was on Roberson Street on land leased from Carr Mill Mall, but the lease on that land eventually expired. The town made an effort to keep the market in Carrboro, and in 1996, with the help of an agricultural grant, the market opened in its current location.
If the market has a reputation among farmers (especially those who don't sell there) as being competitive, overly political and exclusive, it has also managed to become highly lucrative, something that is difficult in this type of venture. The rules at Carrboro are stricter than at any of the other markets in the area, and it is a harder market to get into as a seller.
Produce at the market must be grown within a 50-mile radius. When a farmer applies to become a seller, the farm is inspected by the farmers' market board to assure quality and to make sure the farm is actually producing the things the farmer wants to sell. After a farmer is accepted, his or her farm is subject to random inspections by the board. Once a farmer is accepted as a vendor, he or she must sell at the Wednesday market, or the Southern Village market (held on Thursday afternoons during the summer on the Southern Village lawn), before they are allowed to sell at the Saturday market. And perhaps the biggest difference between the Carrboro market and any other market in the area is that the folks at the market doing the selling must be the actual farmer, or a member of that farmer's immediate family. In other words, the farmer may not hire someone to go to market for them. While this may seem a little extreme (and it does to many people selling at other markets), the benefit to the consumer is undeniable. If you have a question about the farm's growing practices or anything else, the person you are buying from is most likely the person who did the growing.
Part of the regulation that takes place is an effort to have variety in the market, and on Saturdays especially this has been achieved wonderfully. Apart from a wide variety of beautiful seasonal vegetables, you can now get local natural chicken, quite often for less than the nasty stuff in the supermarket costs (and certainly for less than you would pay for natural meats at one of the fancy supermarkets). The same goes for pork, eggs, cheese and red meat. Most farmers' markets are places you go to find a few beautiful and seasonal ingredients you can build your meal around. If you are a good planner, for much of the year you can buy everything you need to feed your family for the week at one trip to Carrboro's Saturday market.
The market does have a few problems. Parking is a pain. While no one will really talk about it on the record, you get the feeling that the internal politics of the place can be oppressive. But its successes are undeniable. Being situated in Carrboro, where the average person's regard for fresh vegetables is considerably higher than in almost any other place in the Southeast, definitely helps. Having been around for so long (the market is now in its 27th season) helps as well. It is a market that has been able to take advantage of those things and become an institution.
Durham Farmers' Market
Morris Street just south of the old DAP and Corporation Avenue
8 a.m.-noon Saturdays from the first Saturday in April to the last Saturday before Thanksgiving
Durham Regional Hospital opposite the emergency department on Roxboro Street
11 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursdays from April to September
There is a word in Australia that has no real translation into American English. The word is daggy, and it means kind of terminally un-hip, but in a good and lovable way. Australians are (for the most part--and I'm making a huge generalization here, of course) a little distrustful of anything too cool, too flashy, and for that reason the word daggy can be used as a term of endearment. It is a word I would use to describe Durham in general, especially when comparing the city to its girls-gone-wild/hipper-than-thou neighbor Chapel Hill, or its slick and commercial neighbors Cary and Raleigh. I don't live in Durham, but most of the time I wish I did, and it is because of Durham's daggyness that I feel a little more at home there.
The same can be said for Durham's farmers' market, and again, especially in relation to the Carrboro and Raleigh markets. While the Carrboro market is on the town green and has a permanent shelter, the Durham market is in a parking lot, and the vendors use tents. If the Carrboro market is aggressively commercial, promoting itself by selling T-shirts, Durham sellers tend to be a little wary of that kind of commercialism. If you need to make a morning of it to go to the Saturday Carrboro market, plotting your parking and shopping strategies, Durham is the kind of market you can pop into. Parking is easy, the market is less crowded, the pace is more leisurely.
Durham has many of the same rules as Carrboro, and like Carrboro the produce is guaranteed local, although Durham allows farmers from a 70-mile radius. The Durham market has a board of directors who inspect the farms to make sure they are growing everything they are selling. I got the impression that it is easier to get into Durham's market as a smaller farmer with less diversity in what you are selling. Durham is certainly a much smaller market than Carrboro at this point; at the height of the season this year they had about 37 vendors, compared to over 80 at the Carrboro Saturday market.
The Durham market is much younger than Carrboro's, having begun in its current incarnation in 1999. It was a collaboration between a VISTA volunteer at SEEDS (an urban gardening program), a city employee and a small group of farmers. The original location, the landmark Durham Athletic Park, was probably a significant help to make it a success in its first year. There were originally about 15-20 vendors. Durham's growth in membership and popularity since then make it a real success story.
Harry Le Blanc, who has been selling vegetables and flowers at the Durham market for four years, says it's a comfortable and friendly market. "There's a congeniality here that you won't find at other markets. It's not as cutthroat. In some other markets there's a hostility towards new vendors that you won't find here."
Durham also has some cool programs that you won't find elsewhere. Its Chef in the Market series brings in chefs from all over the Triangle to demonstrate how they use the fresh produce available at the market. Tastes are available, shoppers get a look at the style of a restaurant they may not have known, and they get a new idea for how to use the seasonal market produce.
Things at the Durham market are about to change. On Nov. 19, there will be a groundbreaking ceremony for a new permanent structure on Foster Street across from the Liberty Arts Pavilion in Durham Central Park, just south of Corporation Avenue. Giving the market a real home is a big step toward making it fully established in the minds of shoppers. One farmer I spoke to who sells at the Durham, Carrboro and Hillsborough markets said he believed that one day the Durham market would become more popular and busy than even the Carrboro market. Once it is in a permanent home, grows a little in terms of sellers, and people realize what a great market it is, he believes the potential for the Durham market is huge.