The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

July 11, 2011

Local Roots – A New Farmers Market Model

FOR THE DAILY SOUTHERNER
Bob Filbrun

TARBORO — As many of you know, my family and I recently traveled to Ohio for a family wedding. In between church decorating, reception hall set-up and rehearsal dinners, we managed to slip away to check out the local farmers market.

 At this point, I should clarify the significance of this “side trip” and emphasize its relevance to recent developments at the Tarboro-Edgecombe Farmers Market.

In May we concluded the T-E Farmers Market Relocation Study. This project, funded through a grant from the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission has been a joint effort of the growers and community to reverse the decade-long market decline while further integrating the Farmers Market into the community and social and business culture of the Town and County.  As a result of community meetings and surveys, our consultant Philip Gotwalls of ACDS, LLC summarized the following goals of the project:

• Improve farm profitability through enhanced marketing opportunities,

• Improve the shopping experience at the Farmers Market,

• Increase the availability of local foods and agricultural products,

• Increase local awareness of the Farmers Market,

• Encourage greater availability of value-added food products,

• Provide training opportunities for farmers and local citizens to improve health, diet, and better utilization of fresh foods,

• Increase the on-site use of food safety and sanitation protocols,

• Improve handicap accessibility at the market,

• Initiate the use of electronic benefits cards at the Farmers Market

• Create a vibrant community center that is utilized for a greater proportion of the year.

Confirmed by interviews with area constituent groups, farmers markets are often as important to community function and culture as they are for the provision of food stuff and maintenance of agricultural economic viability. ACDS met with numerous community groups to discuss their vision of how any proposed changes in the market might be better integrated into the community fabric.

Ideas generated include integration of the newly created Office of Tourism, Office on Aging and Arts Council activities within the proposed facility. This integration of activities would lead to the creation of training facilities for culinary and cultural arts, integration of a local arts gallery, provision of studio rental space, development of business incubation space, creation of a senior activity center within the market, and the provision of space for special events such as dinners, community dances, etc.

Farmers and vendors shared many of the same views of the current market as did consumers. Generally speaking, improvements in the physical structure of the market, access to year-round sales opportunities, and the expansion of processing options were chief among their needs. The driving force behind these recommendations was making the market more profitable for those who sell there.

A primary interest in market expansion is to increase the capacity to process locally produced food and agricultural products by current and prospective market attendants. Primary products identified for processing included minimally processed vegetables; canned and hot- packed produce and meat products; frozen vegetable specialties; frozen, minimally processed seafood items; sauces; pickles; and high acid foods. Great interest was expressed in developing local capacity for Individual Quick Freezing (IQF) of vegetables, fruits, brambles, sweet potatoes, beans, peas and herbs as well as fish and meat products. Other types of processing that generated high interest were baking, bean and nut shelling, crushing and thermal processing of stews, sauces and similar products.

Given the strong level of community support for the Market and the overwhelming need to expand grower participation in the Market, ACDS recommends establishing the new market entity as a consumer-grower cooperative modeled after the Local Roots Market in Wooster, Ohio. This model offers a means for both the community and the vendors to buy-in to the market and offers a means to generate early cash flow to support start-up.

During the open discussion at the community forum meeting in May, it became apparent that many supporters are struggling to visualize this $3 million facility and comprehend how we can transition from a 12-stall outdoor market to a year-round, Amish-style market complete with local meats and other specialty food items.

At that meeting, I attempted to paint a visual picture of the facility as I see it and I continue on that mission today. The area around Local Roots Market brings to mind many similarities: a small-town rooted deeply in agriculture, an old historic district fighting to survive, a regional economy struggling from the national financial crisis, many small start-up businesses looking for a low-overhead outlet and a growing demand for locally grown and produced products.

Entering the glass-front building, we were welcomed by several customers relaxing at tables near the front. The layout was simple and clean with assorted wooden racks, displays and refrigerated cases. The atmosphere was inviting with a touch of personality from each of the vendors. It was empowering to know that only 10 percent of my food dollar was going to the “house” with the remainder going to the producer.  

We strolled the flowing aisles and viewed both traditional and non-traditional items: freshly picked blackberries, homemade noodles, felted soaps, locally produced butter, fragrant herbs and more. While the selection and availability of produce flexes with the season, there continues to be a constant flow of assorted products arriving daily.

Passing left of the cash register is a community meeting space frequented by the local quilters, off to the right is a demonstration kitchen for periodic educational programs, further to the rear is a commercial kitchen available to vendors and other food product producers to meet food safety standards.

It was a very warm, welcoming environment perfect for shopping, visiting and relaxing. I can now visualize the concept with greater clarity and I encourage you to visit one of the following websites to learn more for yourself.

 For more information, visit:

Final Report – Tarboro-Edgecombe Relocation Study - http://tinyurl.com/3fgjlbs

The Local Roots Market - http://localrootswooster.com/

Bob Filburn is an Edgecombe County Extension Service agent specializing in horticulture. Look for his Garden Guide each month on the Community page.