Fresh, Local, Now: County Markets Benefit All
By Ryan Jones
Grocery store lines may soon look a little shorter as hundreds of Davidson County residents begin to ditch fluorescent lighting in favor of sunshine and open air.
From late spring through early fall, three farmers markets in Lexington, Thomasville, and Denton become the destinations of choice for those looking to shorten the divide between farm and table. But visitors to these markets are doing much more than filling their own fridges with healthful options. They are boosting the local economy and helping small-time farmers make ends meet.
Supported by the Davidson County Cooperative Extension office, all three markets are deemed grower-only and local-only, meaning vendors are not permitted to sell anything that they didn’t grow personally or purchase directly from another local farmer. According to vendor guidelines, a farm is considered local if it is within Davidson County or a contiguous county.
In addition to favoring provincial farmers, this emphasis on geography means a fresher, healthier, and tastier product, says Amy-Lynn Albertson, the horticulture extension agent for Davidson County.
“If you’ve only ever gotten asparagus from the grocery store you have no idea what you’re missing. The produce at your grocery store has traveled on average around 1,500 miles. Produce starts losing nutritional value the second it’s harvested,” Albertson says.
“It’s also a matter of knowing where your food comes from and … spending your dollars locally,” she adds. “For every dollar you spend at the farmers market, at least 90 cents goes straight to the farmer, who in turn buys supplies and other things locally. It has a multiplier effect.”
Lexington Farmers Market
The county’s most well-attended market is tucked amid fallen furniture factories under the cover of the old train depot on Railroad Street. The Lexington Farmers Market features a weekly average of around 22 vendors selling seasonal produce, plants, meat, honey, prepared foods, baked goods, crafts, and more. Unofficial counts have placed shopper attendance as high as 500 people over the course of a day.
“The community really has embraced the farmers market,” says Albertson, admitting that she initially was nervous that the location would be detrimental. “The depot is not where regular traffic runs through town. It’s not Main Street. But the city has been very supportive in getting signage and promoting it (the market) and we’ve gotten a lot of support from neighboring businesses.”
Southern Lunch was closed on Saturdays when the Lexington Farmers Market was established in 2005, but soon started opening for breakfast, which helped draw visitors into the vicinity.
In 2008, a grant from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission helped further the City of Lexington’s plans to renovate the train depot structure, which allowed the market to move from the street into its current home.
“We still struggle with visibility and every week people come and say ‘I didn’t know this was here.’ (But) the market has worked hard to have events and organize itself well. It formed a 501(c)5 (designation as an agricultural corporation) in 2011, which gives it tax exemption and opens it up for more grants,” says Albertson.
She adds that in the 10 years since it was founded, the market has helped establish a sense of community for Uptown Lexington. “It’s a social event. It’s really a lot about relationships. A lot of the growers have developed strong friendships.”
“It’s a gathering place,” agrees Brenda Garner, who owns Sandy Creek Farm on Highway 150. “It’s become a place where friends come to shop, bring their kids. It’s a Saturday morning ritual for a lot of folks.”
Garner and her family are among the very first vendors to sell at the Lexington Farmers Market. Being relatively new to farming at the time, she says they needed the support of a public venue.
“There was no question that we would do it,” she says. “It keeps you out there. I like being with people and for them to see the things we have and learn about how we do things.”
Garner considers Sandy Creek to be a niche farm, specializing in things many growers don’t offer like shitake mushrooms, figs, blueberries, and blackberries.
“We like to teach and help people understand how something is grown or recipes on how to cook it. A lot of times we’ll have tastings. We really believe in community and we love being out there. It’s not something we feel like we have to do. We do it because we want to.”
Beth Leonard, owner of Beth’s Greenhouse and acting president of the Lexington Farmers Market, is also a founding vendor. She says she has been involved as a volunteer from day one because she recognized the positive impact it would have.
“It’s something Lexington and Davidson County really didn’t have. When I learned that it was going to be a restrictive market wherein you have to grow what you sell (and it would be) the only market where you’re pretty much guaranteed that it’s local produce … that was just something I wanted to support,” she says. “I wanted to see that kind of market happen.”
The Lexington Farmers Market is open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. starting May 2 and on Wednesdays from __ a.m. – __ starting in June. A full schedule of special events is listed online at LexingtonFarmersMarketNC.com.
Thomasville Farmers Market
Around the same time that Lexington founded its market, a nonprofit organization in Thomasville set the wheels in motion for one of its own.
People Achieving Community Enhancement (PACE) has anchored its mission in revitalizing the downtown area of Thomasville by encouraging relationships and cooperation between merchants, city officials, and residents. The group came together to raise the funds needed to purchase a vacant lot on the corner of Commerce and Guilford streets from the City of Thomasville and build a structure to house a farmers market.
“Thomasville has a different community than Lexington does. It has been a struggle for the Thomasville Farmers Market to really get the customer support that they need,” says Albertson, who attributes this mostly to the lack of activity in downtown Thomasville on a typical weekend morning. “We need both customers and vendors. It’s hard to get the two to come together.”
But the future looks promising and the Thomasville Farmers Market is slowly meeting its goal of providing a source of farm-fresh food to people without much historical access to it.
“It has seen a lot of improvement in the last three years,” says Albertson. “Thomasville is starting to embrace more local foods. Newer businesses are opening like Southern Sisters, which is very supportive.”
Beginning this season, the market will also be able to support purchases using EBT, debit and credit cards.
“It has always been a smaller market,” says Marrillyn Conrad, who manages the Thomasville Farmers Market. She is expecting an increase in the number of regular weekly vendors from around five last year to as many as 13 this year due to more recruiting.
“I’m trying to build that up by advertising EBT … and trying to get more transportation. The community can help by spreading the word,” she says.
Conrad’s passion and desire to help the Thomasville Farmers Market reach its potential is twofold. She wants to connect growers to the people who need exposure to more nutritional options while boosting the local economy.
“I want to see children from low-income families getting good, homegrown food. Thomasville is a poor area. The more money we can get to stay here, the better,” she says. “It’s good food and your get your money’s worth. The reward is a lot better. We may not have a big area, but we have a big variety. We’re just common folk. We’re a family market.”
The Thomasville Farmers Market is open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. – noon starting May 9 and Tuesdays from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. starting in June. More information can be found online at Facebook.com/ThomasvilleFarmersMarket.
Denton Community Farmers Market
Established in 2011 with a grant from Central Park North Carolina, The Denton Community Farmers Market can be found on Salisbury Street across from Harrison Park. The smallest of the three, this market features around three or four regular weekly vendors and many scheduled contests and events throughout the summer.
Like its sister markets, the Denton Farmers Market features staple produce like corn, tomatoes, strawberries, and blueberries with some vendors offering hanging baskets, crafts, and other foods.
Brenda Hogan manages the market and has made it her mission to grow the number of vendors and shoppers in the coming years.
“I try to bring in entertainment and things going on like quilt competition, watermelon eating contests, and live gospel, bluegrass and country music. Our market is not as big as Lexington’s (and) we struggle some,” says Hogan, adding that it’s worth a visit to the southern part of Davidson County to give the small market a chance. “Come try us out,” says Hogan.
Following a grand opening celebration on May 2 from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m., The Denton Community Farmers Market is open Saturdays from 8 a.m. – noon, and Friday and Wednesday evenings from 4:30 – 8:30 p.m. A full schedule of events can be found online at Facebook.com/DentonFarmersMarket.
- Bring Cash. There are some vendors who are willing to swipe your Visa, but many others who only accept cash. It’s probably a good idea to pay a visit to the ATM before your trip.
- Reusable Bags. Vendors may supply bags for your purchases, but seasoned market shoppers know that a sturdy, roomy shopping bag or basket will make your purchases easier to wrangle. Plus you’ll score points for being green.
- Take a Lap: Before you buy anything, take a walk around to see what each vendor has to offer. Selection and price can vary and it’s best to know what your options are.
- Ask Questions: Not sure what to do with Thai basil? Stumped by shitake mushrooms? Chances are excellent that the vendor will be more than happy to give you a few suggestions or recipes.
Want to become a vendor?
Contact Amy-Lynn Albertson, horticulture extension agent for Davidson County Cooperative Extension. (336) 242-2085.