Mark Gamble (left) purchases produce from farmer Kenneth Baxter of Lincoln County at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market on Aug. 9, 2018. Jodie Castellani / Carolina Public Press

The city of Charlotte commissioned a yearlong study of its farmers markets in comparison to those in other metropolitan regions around the state and nation. The results are in, and there is a lot of room for improvement.

“Unlocking the Potential of Charlotte’s Food System and Farmers Markets,” a study completed by New York-based food and beverage consultants, Karen Karp & Partners, found that despite having critical resources to sustain farming and being the largest population center in North Carolina, the Charlotte region underperforms compared with similar benchmark cities.

With issues ranging from sales to communication, KK&P identified several specific problems and offered recommendations to help the area improve.

Farmers and experts interviewed by KK&P for the study said local farmers markets not only boost the economy for farmers near a major city, but have the potential to bring local, healthy food into food deserts. However, the study found that in some locations these ideals may not be working as they should, resulting in a poor performance for consumers and farmers alike.

While two other North Carolina communities examined in the study — Asheville and Raleigh — exhibited solid results, Charlotte’s were poor in comparison with other cities.

Charlotte farms by the numbers

According to the report, Mecklenburg and 10 surrounding counties boast 900,000 acres of farmland, but that number continues to shrink as urbanization expands city centers. From 1997 to 2012, the area lost nearly 3 percent of its farmland, amounting to 25,000 acres.

For some, like Jeff Rieves, Threefold Co. farm consultant and teacher, this trend poses a threat to the culture of farming. He said that while he enjoys farming, he now teaches others to continue the craft.

“Farming is an entrepreneurial — or as we call it, agropreneurial — enterprise, not so much a job-based career, and that’s to me one of the things I really like about it,” Rieves said.

“I’ve owned many small businesses. I farmed. I had a plant nursery and a landscape business. That’s the kind of work I really enjoy doing. Now that I’m over 60, I just feel like it’s time for me to pass on some of the stuff I learned to other folks so maybe they can do it.”

Rieves said a big part of farming is being able to sell the product, and farmers markets are a good way to bring local food into a community.

The report places Charlotte last of the 11 benchmark cities when it comes to direct-to-consumer sales, which are at just $1.57 per capita in the city. Asheville comes in second with direct-to-consumer sales closer to the average of $8 per capita.

Charlotte also has a far lower fruit and vegetable production rate than the other benchmark cities. With only 0.93 acres of fruit and vegetable production per 1,000 residents, the city is ranked ninth. Raleigh, ranked fifth, is the benchmark city most comparable to Charlotte and has 12 acres of fruit and vegetable production per 1,000 residents.

Katie Cournoyer shops for produce Thursday at the Fat Boy’s Produce booth at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. Jodie Castellani / Carolina Public Press

Coordination and collaboration

As of 2017, Charlotte had 16 active farmers’ markets, operating independently from each other.

According to the report, the disconnect between these markets is one of the ways the area underperforms, and this does not go unnoticed by buyers.

Clark Barlowe, executive chef and proprietor at Heirloom Restaurant in Charlotte, said the separation of markets makes it hard for universal access, especially to areas that need the food the most.

“I think we’ve got a lot of good farmers’ markets, but they are in very different areas. We don’t have them in the areas of the city that are considered food deserts or food-insecure areas of the city,” Barlowe said. “It makes transportation and travel difficult to the farmers markets, and I think it needs to be more clearly defined.”

Although many of the most successful markets in Charlotte are privately owned, the largest market in the area is the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, one of four owned and operated by the state. Built in 1985 on 22 acres, the market sees 500,000 visitors annually, far fewer than state-owned markets in other regions, including Asheville and Raleigh, which host millions of visitors per year.

One of the study’s suggestions to improve the area was to partner with CRFM, but Rieves said he does not see this happening as he has seen little interest from the state, which instead opts to funnel money into Raleigh and Asheville.

Jessica Duarte, who works at the Fat Boy’s Produce booth at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, shows off the family business’s produce. Jodie Castellani / Carolina Public Press

What comes next

Although the report gave Charlotte recommendations on how to improve, those like Barlowe and Rieves who deal directly with the markets, say the issues are more complicated than the suggested solutions can fix.

Rieves worries markets will have to open more frequently and stay open longer to compete with the nature of 24-hour grocery stores. Rieves said the quality of organic food at those stores is improving. Farmers are going to have to get inventive and perhaps even mobile to sustain their livelihoods, he said.

For Barlowe, the most important thing about farmers markets is the community, something he hopes is preserved throughout any changes that may be made.

“One of my friends, Marc Jacksina — he’s the chef at Earl’s Grocery — he has this quote that I love. He says the farmers markets are just church as a chef,” Barlowe said.

“I just think that’s so spot on. It feels like the way church should be where you’re having this sense of community and you’re seeing people and you’re enjoying each other’s company. That’s the way the farmers’ markets feel to me.”

For more information:

Farmer Kenneth Baxter of Lincoln County slices open an heirloom tomato so customers at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market can taste test this sweet variety. Jodie Castellani / Carolina Public Press

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