Farmers markets offer win-win for farmers, vendors and customers

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As warm weather arrives, appetites soar for fresh, locally grown produce: lettuces and greens, hearty choice tomatoes, succulent strawberries, perfectly ripe corn, savory onions and other edible blessings grown on farms.

And if you also want fresh-cut blooms for your dining room table, or have the urge to grow your own patches of vegetables, flowers or native plants, you have three sources right here in farm- and artisan-rich Chatham County: Fearrington Farmers Market, Pittsboro Farmers Market and Chatham Mills Farmers Market.

Between them, an abundance of high-quality, fresh, sustainably grown food and farm products, including a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, cheeses and other dairy products, honey, preserved foods, bakery goods and prepared foods, is offered to health-conscious customers. Even healthy foods and treats for pets are available.

While food is the predominant focus, customers can also find hemp/CBD products, crafts, jewelry, handmade soaps, herbal/medicinal products and pet toys at one or more of the markets. There’s even a crafter of cornhole boards.

Master gardeners and nonprofit organizations such as food pantries and Chatham’s Habitat for Humanity may be found at the markets to educate and raise public awareness. Customers are often treated to live music, and special events, such as plant sales, occur throughout the year.

All three are producer-only markets that provide direct outlets for farmers and vendors to sell their products. Face-to-face interaction allows customers to learn more about who is growing or producing their food — and where — and what methods are used.

CHATHAM MILLS FARMERS MARKET

“Our goal is to provide high quality local food to the area, support small farmers, grow the local economy and provide an enjoyable open space for the community to gather,” said Cheryl McNeill, market manager at Chatham Mills Farmers Market.

Chatham Mills is the newest market, founded in 2010 by a group of Chatham County area farmers with support from the community. It convenes outside the historic mill building that houses Chatham Mills Marketplace and other local establishments just north of downtown Pittsboro, and it opens seasonally on Saturdays.

“We like that there is organic produce and sustainable food available and knowing where the food comes from,” said Andrea Arnold, who lives with her husband Rene in Siler City. She visits both the Chatham Mills and Pittsboro farmers markets.

“It’s important to support the farmers and the local community,” Rene said.

The Chatham Farmers Market is typically bustling on Saturday mornings with people of all ages, including lots of families.

“We’re here because mom loves plants,” said a young Violet Rhodes, who accompanied her parents, Meredith Price and Ryan Rhodes, on a recent visit there.

Violet said she came for the music. Others come at the recommendation of friends.

“This is my first time here,” said Tammy Howarth, visiting with her husband, Frank and their daughter, Sophie. “I came because my neighbor is a Cure Nursery employee.”

FEARRINGTON FARMERS MARKET

Over at Fearrington, open every Tuesday, customers are welcome to come early to look over what is being offered — but no sales take place until the ring of the bell, a long-held tradition.

The Fearrington Market, the oldest in Chatham County, began in 1991 when Jenny and R. B. Fitch led a group of Fearrington Village residents in contacting local farmers through the Seeds of Hope Project. The market sets up within Fearrington Village, an active lifestyle community popular with retirees.

“I would say we probably get half to 75% of our customers from Fearrington Village, but we are starting to see younger individuals, families and kids from nearby neighborhoods,” said Market Manager Eddie Kallam.

The Market’s busy, friendly and inclusive atmosphere draws loyal customers seeking healthy, happy living.

“It’s good to be a year-round market. Our customers like to have the market as a local source for food,” said Kallam. “Even on some of the worst weather days, we still get the die-hard customers who come out in the rain and freezing weather.”

The Fearrington Market also has some very loyal vendors. Mike Perry and Cathy Jones have been bringing their produce, poultry and flowers from Perry-winkle Farm since the market opened in 1991. The farm also provides flowers for special events.

Several new vendors have joined Fearrington Farmers Market this spring including Govinda’s Catering, bmc brewery and Haw River Mushrooms.

The interconnectedness of the farmers, vendors and customers at the Fearrington Farmers Market is so characteristic that it’s sometimes difficult to tell who’s a customer and who’s a vendor as they greet each other and stroll around to each other’s tables.

“Farmers markets bring us back to our roots with ways of interacting with businesses and trades and products in local commerce,” said Lorraine Messner, who works nearby. “I plan on coming to the market every Thursday, and I’m never disappointed with their wholesome great products.”

PITTSBORO FARMERS MARKET

The Pittsboro Farmers Market began in 1997 as a collaborative effort on the part of local farmers, the Chatham County Cooperative Extension Service, the Chatham County Fair and local residents. It’s open year-round on Thursdays at Main Street Station, just east of downtown.

Elizabeth Thomas, market manager, shares a fun fact: “With Stephanie Bart of Naturally Local joining the market, we now have two French vendors selling amazing, delicious prepared foods each week.”

Annie Pambaguian from Sweet Little Something is the other one.

“I’ve been coming here for seven or eight years,” said one customer who goes by the name Chubby. “You can’t beat the quality and freshness you get when you deal with the farmers. I don’t need anything from the grocery store.”

“The produce is the freshest you can find, often picked that morning,” said Donna Hardy, attending with husband Curt. “It tastes so much better and lasts so much longer; it’s like having a garden at home.”

The couple expresses support for local farmers who provide organic meat from humanely raised animals.

Big news coming out of the Pittsboro Farmers Market is its impending move to the grounds of The Plant on Lorax Lane in Pittsboro, home of Chatham Beverage District.

“We’re excited to move over to The Plant in June,” said Thomas. “It’s going to make coming to the market even more fun for our customers as they can grab a drink and hang out listening to music, watch their kids play on the playground or even take in some local art. It’s also just a beautiful location, and it’s going to give us room to add even more vendors in the coming years.”

Tami Schwerin, The Plant’s co-owner, is also a Pittsboro Farmers Market customer.

“It’s my first choice because I know the farmers and how they grow things,” Schwerin said. “Plus, supporting the local economy is one of the most important objectives around here. It’s a community-driven farmers market.”

A MAIN SOURCE OF INCOME

There are more than 1,000 farms in Chatham County, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. Nearly half of these are below 50 acres in size. Given the climate, Chatham County growers are able to produce a wide variety of seasonal crops. Some farms and producers from neighboring counties participate in Chatham County farmers markets. All vendors are required to meet geographic radius requirements.

“Farmers markets are important for the small farms and bakers and people who make other food. For the majority of the vendors, the farmers markets are their main way to make money,” said Fearrington’s Kallam. Some also sell to restaurants, grocery stores, through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and online.

“We have a strong, local food community in Pittsboro,” said Chatham Mills’ McNeill. “It’s like an ecosystem.”

Central Carolina Community College plays a role with its degree program in sustainable agriculture.

“People will take classes at CCCC and go work with farms in the community,” McNeill said.

One such student is Hailey Ostenfeld, who works at Copeland Springs Farm as a farm hand while pursuing her degree.

“I go to the Pittsboro Farmers Market to support local farms, get my meat locally and ask farmers questions about the food,” Ostenfeld said.

Close connection to customers who want to be more knowledgeable about their food, know the farmers and the practices they use promotes more responsible growing and producing habits such as sustainable farming methods which preserve and improve soil quality.

Farmers markets give food providers opportunities to teach and inform.

“You don’t have that at a grocery store,” said McNeill. “Many of our farms use organic practices even though they aren’t certified organic. It’s more expensive to farm that way; talking with the customer allows farmers to explain what they do and why.”

To learn more about some of the vendors who sell products at local markets, check out the News + Record's vendor guide. 

IF YOU'RE GOING: Here's what you need to know about Chatham's three markets.

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