Welcome to Hometown Appetites, a recurring look at the way this country eats, neighborhood by neighborhood.
The most underappreciated farmers market in America is in my hometown, the North Carolina state capital of Raleigh.
Open every day, all year round, the beating heart of the place is the 30,000-square-foot covered shed for farmers that grow produce and plants, nearly all from North Carolina. The 75-acre complex also has three restaurants: a biscuit and hot dog stand; a meat-and-three where most of the threes are procured on-site; and a Calabash-style seafood restaurant where the catch comes from the coast, just two hours east. It has an air-conditioned hall where stalls dressed up like country stores sell old-fashioned candy and canned okra, but also grass-fed beef and undersung species of local fish. It has an outpost of North Carolina’s Nahunta Pork Center, a garden furniture store, and an outdoor crafts area where you’ll find small food businesses selling West African-style doughnuts plus kettle corn and shaved ice.
When I stand under those airplane hangar-sized ceilings where the honeyed scent of the scuppernong hangs in the summer; where Vang Flowers sometimes sells Hmong greens in between their dahlias; where I can buy both a hot-pink Carolina slaw dog from the Market Grill and postured proteins from Mae Farm Meats every single day of the freaking week, I’d swear to you, it’s the best farmers market in the whole damn country.
It might also be one of the least pretentious. Yes, it is still a favored source for high-end chefs; Ashley Christensen, the James Beard Foundation 2019 best American chef, works just down the road. But almost everybody in town gets some of their food here, too, whether or not they realize it.
In addition to home cooks and chefs, small groceries and roadside produce stands also come here between midnight and 8 a.m. during peak season, buying cantaloupes and corn and green beans directly from farmers who sell right from their pickups in the parking lot.
Those early morning sales pale in comparison to those at the truck bays that line the rear of the State Farmers Market, home to an all-hours terminal produce market. That’s where wholesalers and distributors lease cold storage and real estate for their tractor-trailers and exchange a fair share of all the domestic and imported fruits and vegetables consumed in the region. (Yes, that includes North Carolina cucumbers and tomatoes, but also bananas and lemons and winter asparagus, because that’s what a terminal market’s customers — hotels, smaller distributors, and grocers — require.)
There’s still more wholesale action over at the drive-through building, where restaurants, small groceries, and large families drive through to pick up a $10 case of local tomatoes or a box of green papaya sold by distributors often catering to an immigrant clientele. It’s open to everyone on Saturdays after 8 a.m., when they prohibit the cars, and Raleigh residents from multiple continents buy mangoes and plantains by the case.
It is a far different setup from most farmers markets, says Krista Morgan, an expert in wholesale, retail and direct farm sales channels with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, where she helps smaller growers sell their stuff. So different, says Morgan, “I almost think it could be called something else.”
“The way we always described it, the market is almost like a front porch to North Carolina agriculture,” says Monica Wood, a marketing specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, which has managed the market since 1958.
I’d argue a more accurate description is more like a porch, country store, flea market, Costco, Restaurant Depot, and New York City greenmarket all rolled up into one.
Some 3 million people a year pass through the market’s front gate, says Wood. That attendance is down, she says, from a peak of 3.8 million around 2012, when farmers markets were becoming increasingly chic, but there were still fewer of them around the city.
That’s still so many people that Morgan doesn’t suggest her smaller clients sell there, even if they made it to the top of its long waiting list. “It’s so busy,” she says, “you’re run out within an hour.”
Wood, who has worked in the marketing division of the NCDA for 18 years, grew up farming and attending the original version of the market with her father. “Here I am still around it,” says Wood with some surprise. “Farming. It gets in your blood.”
The State Farmers Market that Wood grew up going to — built in 1955 on about 20 acres on a floodplain near the center of the city — wasn’t a showplace, but it worked much like the current one. (It also sounded fun: A 1981 News & Observer story described a bunch of farm kids who essentially camped out every summer saving their families’ spots: “Her bed is the back of a Chevy Pickup,” the reporter wrote of Tammy Sherron, “her headboard a bushel basket of string beans.”)
Also a mashup of the wholesale and the homegrown, the market was modeled on a similar setup already in use in Columbia, South Carolina. But it was perfected by Jim Graham, the market’s manager through the ’50s and early ’60s. (South Carolina has since built a newer, bigger one a lot like Raleigh’s, but I haven’t yet been to visit.)
Graham became both a quasi-celebrity and North Carolina’s Commissioner of Agriculture, an elected position he held for 36 years. Known as “The Sodfather,” he was the state’s ultimate agricultural booster. He died in 2003 and would roll in his grave if I neglected to tell you North Carolina is still the eighth largest agricultural producer in the nation by receipts.
If today I’d say people like Morgan are trying to help grow the next generation of North Carolina farmers — sustainable, diverse in background and crops, finding their niche as mainstream farms continue to consolidate — back in the 1950s, it was Graham.
As Graham recounts in his 1998 autobiography, itself a history of agriculture in the state, in the 1950s he was trying to bring up the state’s farmers from the poor, post-slavery years of tenant farming cotton and tobacco to a more lucrative style of land ownership and agribusiness. Back then, that meant growing the kind of vegetables you see in the grocery store. (It also meant mainly white farmers: The state’s black growers, like those in the rest of the South, were systematically denied ownership, loans, and everything else until very recently.)
A 1956 N&O story illustrates the way leaders were thinking about agricultural sales at the time: It lauded the new Raleigh market’s plan to lure big companies to its terminal market for cleaner, more consistent vegetables while dismissing the ragtag crops from the truck farmers and the retail side as not ready for prime time. “These are not simple days;” the reporter noted, “the housewife wants her cucumbers waxed. She doesn’t buy potatoes in 165-pound barrels anymore; she likes 5- and 10-pound bags of washed — and sometimes even artificially colored — potatoes.”
Graham, who later helped found the state’s progressive Center for Environmental Farming Systems, made sure the ragtag side of things were improved. He installed shelling machines and sweet potato sorters at the market and sought out other innovations. He grew the market’s commercial sales, but also the public side of the business from just one day a week to the daily scene that I love today.
It’s interesting to note — at least it is to this Raleigh native — that early on the State Farmers Market was privately owned, built by a developer named J.W. Willie York. York, whose son became mayor and whose name is still synonymous with local real estate, established his market beside the food distribution companies he’d already helped build in the area.
When York’s new market took all of the business from the original (and now landmarked) city market building downtown, the government sold its space and started leasing York’s, making Graham a state employee in the process. Graham helped convince the state to buy the property outright; York later pulled his own strings to get Graham on his first ballot for state agriculture commissioner.
All of the above may have just been a bunch of backroom maneuvering, but it probably served the state in the long run. According to a 1971 article by geographer Jane Pyle — “Farmers’ Markets in the United States: Functional Anachronisms?” — many of the country’s original city markets failed by the 1960s unless they were publicly owned and designed for the farmers rather than the consumers.
Raleigh’s market was lucky to be both of the above — a bronze plaque literally dedicated the 1955 market to the farmers of North Carolina and the produce industry of the United States — and it continued to grow. It moved to its current $14 million building in 1991; today the state operates three similarly busy farmers markets in Greensboro, Asheville, and Charlotte. Yet while those require money from the taxpayers to operate, says Wood, the State Farmers Market remains self-sufficient. It earns enough from rent for its stalls and restaurants and wholesale fees, she says, to stay afloat.
“All the farmers markets in the state of North Carolina and in the United States are measured against the one in Raleigh,” says Gene Lee, a third-generation co-owner of L&G Farms, who has been attending the market since 1992 and served for many years on its board of directors. Part of the reason, says Lee, was Graham: “He loved the Raleigh market. That was his baby.”
Lee, who has twangy vowels that mark him as an eastern North Carolinian, is typical of the produce vendors that have always attended the market. He and his family farm 60 acres of mixed conventionally grown produce in Benson, a Johnston County town 40 minutes south from the market. (Raleigh sits near the eastern edge of the central Piedmont region, which flattens into the coastal plain and the state’s most naturally fertile soils.)
Lee’s family pays $16,000 to $17,000 a year to rent a handful of stalls they supply every day of the year, save for Easter and Christmas. (And after hurricanes, like Florence last fall: “We lost about everything we had,” says Lee.)
While Lee’s family members work at the State Farmers Market and the other two farm stands they run in the region, Lee does a lot of the farming and the schlepping, bringing the produce to all three stands every day of the week. Then after deliveries, he says, “I get back home and get on my tractor.”
Lee began growing vegetables in the 1990s to get out of tobacco. He chose to sell at the farmers market, as did many of his neighbors, for business reasons, too. He’s maybe large enough to sell to a distributor, but at a “packing house you got whatever they give you.” At the market, he tells me, “You have some say-so about what it’ll be.”
His sales at State Farmers Market have declined over the years, Lee told me — he believes it’s due to many things, including more farmers markets, fancy groceries, and CSAs, as well as fewer people who actually cook. (Mike Jones of Mae Farms Meats also says that his regulars now tend to migrate with jobs to other booming cities every few years; he might also sell more, he thinks, if the market didn’t close at 6 p.m.)
Still, Lee’s heirloom peppers and tomatoes count as some of Raleigh’s most photographed produce — look for them at Ashley Christensen’s restaurants downtown, not far from the original city market — and he has continued to adapt to what he farms over the past 20 years. “I grow some stuff that I never thought I would grow or try to grow,” Lee tells me, listing crops like Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and lettuce.
I already know some of you will laugh at his list — those of you that didn’t stop reading at the plantains and papayas I mentioned up at the beginning. It is true that the State Farmers Market is primarily plain-Jane produce, light on organics and lesser-known crops. Maybe you think it’s hopelessly hokey with its corn-eating contests and its old-fashioned restaurants.
And I understand, I do: We also need things like the Durham Roots Farmers Market and the Black Farmers Market, both of which address real gaps in this and all the other privately run farmers markets around the state that already existed.
But my hometown farmers market is one of the few farmers markets that doesn’t feel like some kind of an outlier to regular grocery shopping, some special thing we do outside of the mainstream, or worse, a fancy food hall. It feels like it is a part of the regular system because it is, which is exactly what our farmers markets should be.
Rachel Wharton is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and author of “American Food (A Not-So-Serious History),” available from Abrams Books in fall 2019.