The sun is bright, temperatures are high and so are spirits at the Raleigh Farmers Market.It is an enormous place, where one can buy a variety of products, from lemonade to stone engravings. Of course, there is plenty of fresh produce to buy as well, especially peaches, which seem to be in season at this time of the year.
The market is busy, and vendors cheerily call out to passing visitors. The most heavily trafficked part of the market is the Farmers Building, a large open-air pavilion. Half of the Farmers Building is dedicated to fresh produce and honey, and the other half includes vendors selling indoor and outdoor plants.
Beyond the pavilion is the Market Shoppes, an air-conditioned building with several stalls and shops selling fruit, meat, wines, souvenirs, lemonade and candy. Additionally, there are outdoor stalls next to the NC Seafood Restaurant and a large building for drive-through pickups reserved for local restaurants that need to buy produce in bulk.
Food vendors and plant vendors have had different experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plant vendors, in particular, saw sales increase over the past year and a half.
“People have been staying home and discovered that they have yards,” said Ginger Nichols, a plant vendor who sells hardwood shrubs. “And so, we’ve been extremely busy selling plants to make everybody’s yards beautiful.”
For the food vendors at the market, however, business has been more difficult this past year as lockdowns and travel restrictions affected customer demand. According to Bruce Lowry, a produce and candy vendor, some merchants at the Farmers Market had to take extra steps to ensure steady business.
“We had to go do a lot of deliveries and stuff like that we didn’t normally... have to go and do, because people were afraid to come out,” said Lowry, whose family has been selling candy and produce for three generations at the Farmers Market.
Many food vendors had to adapt to changing market conditions. Some resorted to online sales in addition to delivery, and began accepting cashless payments via apps like Venmo.
Fortunately, many vendors at the Raleigh Farmers Market also sell goods to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organizations and retail stores to better distribute risk. That way, they still have markets, even if the number of local restaurants and customers visiting their stalls shrinks.
“Farmers usually say they don’t put all their eggs in one basket, so they’ll have multiple crops, and a diversity of crops, but they’ll also have [a] diversity of market,” said Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, a professor of agroecology in the department of crop and soil sciences.
Pandemic-related restrictions and the need for social distancing also posed challenges for the vendors. The importance of sanitation and personal protective equipment for the vendors increased.
“A lot of our markets faced higher costs this past year to cover the cost of gloves, hand sanitizer, extra masks and things like that,” said Hannah Dankbar, local food program manager for NC Cooperative Extension.
Farmers markets like the one in Raleigh were considered essential businesses in North Carolina since the early stages of the pandemic, allowing them to stay open and continue operating throughout the worst of the crisis. Nevertheless, many Raleigh residents were unaware that the Farmers Market was open throughout the pandemic and many of the customers visiting nowadays only just found out.
“We tried to advertise through Facebook and other social media, but I guess a lot of people just didn’t know and had no idea we’re open,” Lowry said.
It is possible that the return of students for the fall semester at NC State will significantly increase sales at the Farmers Market. Yet, despite the close proximity of Raleigh Farmers Market to both Main and Centennial Campus, some college students might be wary of buying from farmers markets because of price concerns. However, according to Dankbar, oftentimes there is not a significant price difference between the produce sold at a supermarket chain and at a local farmers market.
“Food insecurity is a really big challenge for college students, and there is a perception that local food can be more expensive,” Dankbar said. “That can be true for some products, but for other products, for some of your staple products like onions, peppers and sweet potatoes, they’re often the same price or maybe even a step cheaper at local farmers markets.”
Schroeder-Moreno agreed, saying that farmers markets often offered prices comparable to supermarket and grocery store chains, except for perhaps the first fruits and vegetables grown in a season.
“My students in the advanced agroecology class have looked at the Raleigh State Farmers Market compared to grocery store prices, and they can be very similar,” Schroeder-Moreno said. “Yes, the difference might be the first tomatoes of the season, [they are] always a little bit more expensive, or the first strawberries. But then they kind of even out a little bit.”
According to both Dankbar and Schroeder-Moreno, there is another appealing aspect of farmers markets like the Raleigh Farmers Market for college students. At local farmers markets, buyers can converse directly with the growers; they can inquire about how produce is grown and develop relationships with suppliers in a way that would be impossible at a supermarket chain.
The Raleigh Farmers Market is open from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Monday through Saturday and from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Sundays.