By Ivey Schofield
Glendell Robinson jumped at the sight of a potential customer who might want to buy the leafy greens he was selling at the Cape Fear Farmer’s Market.
Since he retired about eight years ago, Robinson, 82, has sold seasonal produce – watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers, honey, pumpkins, grapes, blueberries and more – at the farmers market in Bladen County almost every weekend.
“Business has been good,” he said. “I’ve made a little money and made some friends, too.”
But on Saturday, Robinson was the only farmer at the market in this rural community where agriculture is a major economic driver. That might not be a huge surprise during these winter months, but the absence of fresh crops at the Cape Fear Farmer’s Market persists throughout the year.
Now Elizabethtown, which owns the market, is trying to bolster the property to bring in more vendors and customers.
In December, Elizabethtown received a $50,000 Hometown Grant from communications company T-Mobile to upgrade the farmers market site on Martin Luther King Drive. Organizers plan to build a covered stage for performances and an information center for visitors.
Terri Dennison, executive director of the Elizabethtown-White Lake Chamber of Commerce, said the goal is to attract locals and tourists who will attend concerts, take selfies in front of new murals, spend money at downtown businesses and visit the farmers market.
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The market is already home to two restaurants – Barefoot Sandwich Shoppe and Burney’s Sweets and More – that consistently draw crowds for breakfast and lunch.
Bo Barefoot, who owns the sandwich shop, said his business saw the most customers when the town hosted concerts in the past. He’s excited for the new projects.
“We feel like (our business) really will grow, and the farmers market will grow with it,” Barefoot said.
That’s what organizers are counting on, and they are already trying to lure more farmers to set up shop each Saturday. As an incentive, Elizabethtown waives the $7 vendor fee for those who sell produce.
“We want to locate more produce producers that are willing to be there more consistently,” Dennison said. “That’s the draw. People want that.”
Farmers markets are big business
Farmers markets have long been popular places for people to support local crafters and artisans and buy fresh food grown in their own communities.
North Carolina is home to about 230 farmers markets that together bring an average of $70 million in local sales per year, according to the North Carolina State Extension.
Increasingly, farmers markets have become a good option for young farmers who want to get their names out in the community, said Hannah Dankbar, local food program manager at the Extension.
But many of the farmers in Bladen County are older or disabled, Robinson said, and they sell their crops at their farms.
One of the county’s strategic goals in 2021 was to decrease the average age of farmers, which was 59 in 2012.
Bladen Community College now has an agribusiness technology program, which focuses on entrepreneurship, field training, the economy and government policies related to the business of farming.
Robinson said he initially didn’t want to sell produce at the farmers market. “But they kept bugging me,” he said, “and gave me a pretty good deal.”
Along with bolstering the local economy, Dankbar said, farmers markets help address food insecurity.
About 25% of Bladen County residents live below the poverty line – nearly double the average in North Carolina. In Bladen, 17% of residents lack adequate access to food, compared to 14% statewide, according to County Health Rankings.
Some farmers markets, including the Robeson County Farmers Market, accept EBT, or debit card payments for low-income residents who participate in the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Some also accept payments from programs for pregnant women and mothers and senior citizens.
The Cape Fear Farmer’s Market leaves it up to individual farmers.
Persistence is key
While the business of farming has shifted over the years from small, family-owned farms to more corporate operations, Bladen is still a major player in agriculture. It is the largest blueberry producer in the state.
In 2017, more than 180,000 acres of land in Bladen were used as farms, an increase of 54% from 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Robinson said he doesn’t depend on the income he makes from selling at the Cape Fear Farmer’s Market, but he enjoys the experience.
“I could sell at my house,” he said, “but I’ve got customers that wait on me and want to see me.”
Sandra Johnson, who has been selling wreaths and other crafty arrangements for the last three years since her retirement, said the key to earning some extra money is to consistently show up to the market.
“You’ve got to be there long enough that people know you’re there,” she said. “You’ve got to go even when you’re not making money.”
Johnson, 73, said many of the farmers she sees try once or twice to sell their products and then never return.
“We have trouble getting the farmers because the men don’t have the stamina to go and wait it out,” she quipped. “But I hope we get our farmers back up there again.”