Growing Season: New farmers markets to bring local focus to Cowee, Maggie Valley
The grassy field is empty and the playground vacant as the sun sheds evening beams across the grounds of Cowee School. But when Susan Ervin looks at the unoccupied asphalt track and pavilion bare of coolers and tablecloths, she sees the busy community scene she’s hoping to experience on the long-awaited May 13.
It’s the day that will kick off the new Cowee Farmers Market, a goal Ervin and a core group of eight others have been working toward for months. In the empty field of the decommissioned school-turned-community-center, she sees vendors setting up displays of fresh produce, crafts, preserves, meats and plants. She sees a local band playing in the pavilion, tip jar open. She sees children playing on the swing set, teenagers tossing a football around in the field — just people having fun.
“We are trying to have this whole facility be a community resource, a place to bring people,” Ervin said of the old school. “We want to promote local agriculture and local foods and people eating well. We want to promote people coming out here and having a good time.”
The shutdown school, now reborn as the Macon County Heritage Center at Cowee School, seemed like the perfect venue to accomplish that. The pavilion, lawn, playground and ballfields make room for people to spread out and stay beyond the time it takes to simply pick out a head of lettuce or piece of pottery. Customers can use the school’s bathrooms, and vendors can buy time in its USDA-certified kitchen to prepare wares for sale. Studios teaching everything from pottery to textiles fill the old classrooms, giving opportunity for the missions of the school and the farmers market to spur one another on.
“The whole facility is just very inviting,” Ervin said.
A long row to hoe
It wasn’t hard to garner support for a new market among the circle of people already involved with restoring Cowee School and Rickman Store, which is just down the road. But the road to 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 13, has not been an easy one.
“There has been a lot of work,” said Beth Moberg, who has been working alongside Ervin.
The group of nine has been holding three-hour meetings since the fall to hash out the particulars of when the market would be held, how much vendors would pay to participate, what the bylaws should be — all the millions of decisions that go into creating a successful market. Then, of course, there was the time spent actually carrying out those decisions and the hours devoted to securing $3,300 in grant money from the Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities Program. Of that, $3,000 will go to pay Ervin a small salary for the time she pours into her leadership role as market manager, and $300 will go to the items and permits required to start the market up.
“Every penny of money taken in by applications [from vendors] will go back to the farmers market,” Moberg said.
Meanwhile, Ervin has been busy recruiting vendors, sending out press releases, organizing a raffle, handing out flyers … the list goes on. A lot of work has gone into getting the market going, but in Ervin’s mind, there’s no better cause. The more farmers markets, the more outlets people have to buy fresh food, the more connection they have to the people who grow it, the more excuses they have to get out and talk to their neighbors and the more money stays in the local economy.
“I think a lot of people have interest in local, healthy food,” she said. “They like to think, ‘I know the guy who grew these tomatoes, and they taste fantastic.’”
That’s a conviction that’s leading Justin Phillips to start his own new farmers market, this one over in Maggie Valley. Phillips, who owns Organic Beans Coffee Co., has a love of both food and face-to-face interaction. The nearest farmers market for Maggie residents was in Waynesville, and he wanted Maggie to have something of its own.
“It was a little difficult to get good, fresh food in Maggie Valley,” Phillips said. “You either have to go to Waynesville to their farmers market or to Ingles to get it. I wanted some fresh food closer by.”
So, around January, Phillips started taking some solid steps for turning the two-acre lot next to the coffee shop into a full-on market from 8 a.m. to dusk every Friday and Saturday. He’s got about 20 vendors signed up, but he’s got plans beyond even that measure of success. Like Ervin, Phillips wants to see his market turn into a full-fledged community magnet, something greater than the equivalent of a collection of roadside produce stands.
SEE ALSO: Local farmers market rundown
“The problem with the roadside produce stand is it’s not a gathering place. Can you hear music from local musicians? Probably not. Can you buy soap that was made by one of your neighbors? Probably not,” he said.
Maggie Valley may not be that far from Waynesville and its pair of biweekly farmers markets, but Phillips doesn’t see that as a problem. It’s about giving locals a place to gather and get fresh food and vendors another chance to sell their wares.
Synergy, not competition
Vendors have been getting a lot more of those chances in recent years. North Carolina is in the top 10 states for number of farmers markets, and its tally — like that of basically every other state — is going up. Just from 2012 to 2013 the number jumped 13 percent, moving from 202 markets to 229, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since 2000, the nationwide number of farmers markets has nearly tripled from 2,863 to 8,144.
For those who recall those third grade lessons on supply and demand, that may seem to be an unsustainable trend. Won’t the new markets run out of customers to sustain them and vendors to supply them? At some point, does the birth of a new market just mean the death of another?
The farmers market revolution isn’t a simple supply-and-demand model, though. People will always need to eat, and both Ervin and Phillips believe that their preferred way to do so is changing.
“I think people in small towns are concerned about our economy,” Ervin said. “We want to keep money in our community, and we also want to see the heritage of the area survive.”
By creating more markets, it becomes easier for the people already perpetuating that heritage to make a living and for people who are interested in giving it a try to get started. When large-scale wholesalers were the only game in town, Ervin said, people had to fully commit to producing a large crop in order to make money as a farmer, while now, “if you’ve got extra blueberries, you can bring them and sell them.”
Placing optimism in farmers markets is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I think that farmers markets encourage people who want to grow stuff to know they will have a market,” Ervin said. “More growers make more markets be able to operate, and more markets make more growers be able to survive.”
That’s because it takes more than just one day at market for a grower to make it worth their while, especially during the thick of growing season. After all, a tomato picked ripe on Sunday won’t look so tasty by the time the next Saturday market rolls around.
“They’re picked ripe, so therefore they need to go to an outlet,” said Joyce Haas, treasurer of the Franklin Tailgate Market, who plans to sell plants at the Cowee Market, too. “For somebody in that area, if they can get a Tuesday in Cowee, a Friday in Bryson City and a Saturday in Franklin, that gives them several opportunities to move their products.”
Robin Smith, manager of Canton Farmers Market and Heritage Crafts, agrees. She manages the market, but she also sells beef and baked goods at Canton and twice a week at the Historic Haywood Farmers Market.
“That’s my livelihood, during the summer, is doing markets,” she said. “To me, that gives the farmers and growers in different places more opportunity in different places to sell their products.”
Which is another aspect that sets farmers markets apart from the rest of the business world. Increasing the number of markets doesn’t create competition so much as it does synergy.
“It just works in a nice circle,” Ervin said, “where people are getting fed and farmers have somewhere to sell their stuff.”
And the more rural corners like Cowee and Maggie Valley that have those outlets, the bigger that circle becomes.
Returned mail issues discovered at Cowee market
Cowee Farmers Market organizers have just learned that the U.S. Postal Service has been returning their mail, so registrations sent by mail may have gotten lost. The grand opening is set for May 13, and vendor space is still available. The schedule also has space for musical talent and booths for nonprofits. Forms, by-laws and other information is available online at www.coweefarmersmarket.com.
Maggie market seeking vendors
The Maggie Valley Farmers Market is still looking for vendors, musicians and others who can help round out the farmers market experience.