Charlotte explores ways to help farmers markets, farmers

Gordon Mullings sells microgreens at Charlotte Regional Farmers Market.

They seem to pop up each summer like wild onions in the lettuce – small farmers markets around Charlotte selling produce that might or might not be locally grown. Some last barely a season, while others put down roots and continue for years.

They’re part of a farm-to-city regional economic system that includes the large Charlotte Regional Farmers Market on Yorkmont Road off the Billy Graham Parkway in west Charlotte, the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market, South End’s Atherton Market, the Davidson Farmers Market and many others around Mecklenburg County. But can this collection of markets, consumers and farmers begin to function more like a system?

The City of Charlotte is studying that question, part of an initiative that aims to come up with a recommendation for a public market system that can support food access, entrepreneurship and farmers. Although the city hasn’t traditionally delved into issues of food access and food systems, official say farmers markets can help build community and create vibrant places in the city and the region.

Should Mecklenburg farms get more protection? Here’s how that could happen.

In January, consultant Ben Kerrick of KarenKarp & Partners offered the group’s findings to date at two public gatherings. The group’s final recommendations are expected in March. Click here to download a PDF of the presentation.

Among KK&P’s finding to date:

  • From 1997 to 2012, Mecklenburg County lost more than a third of its farms and more than half its farm acreage. Nevertheless, Mecklenburg agriculture sales increased by nearly 50 percent during that time, compared to an increase for the metro region of 37 percent.
  • At the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, about two-thirds of the vendors come from within the 10-county metro region.
  • From 1997 to 2012, farms in the 10-county region saw an increase in direct sales (sales going straight to consumers, not to brokers or grocery stores) of more than 90 percent, and the number of farms taking part in direct sales increased by 81 percent. But only 7.6 percent of the region’s farms participated in direct marketing in 2012.

Kerrick also discussed how the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, run by the N.C. Department of Agriculture, compares with the other three state-run regional farmers markets in Asheville, Raleigh and the Piedmont Triad.  

This slide from the KK&P presentation compares the four state-run regional farmers markets. 

Charlotte’s market is smallest (22 acres, compared to Asheville’s 36 acres, Raleigh’s 75 and the Triad’s 77), the only one lacking wholesale facilities and a restaurant, and the only one not open daily. Although Charlotte is by far the largest N.C. city, its farmers market has the lowest attendance:

  • Charlotte attendance – 0.5 million
  • Asheville – 1.4 million
  • Triad – 1.8 million
  • Raleigh – 3.5 million
Locally grown eggs for sale at Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. Photo: Amber Veverka

The consultants’ preliminary suggested strategies may change, but as Kerrick presented them, they were:

1. Create an integrated and centralized farmers market organization.

2. Launch a citywide education and marketing campaign.

3. Offer support for the city’s neighborhood markets.

4. Streamline and expand payment opportunities (including SNAP, formerly food stamps) at participating markets.

5. Create partnerships among farmers markets and hunger relief/food access initiatives.

6. Clarify and improve city zoning regulations.

7. Define a clear framework of destination, neighborhood, and mobile/pop-up markets to guide new market development.

8. Create additional destination farmers markets to complement the geography served by the Regional Farmers Market. (Suggested possible sites are Camp North End on Statesville Avenue and the old Eastland Mall site at Central Avenue and Albemarle Road.)

9. Create a year-round indoor public market.

10. Make retail- and visitor-oriented improvements to the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. (These might include a stronger prepared foods program and improved transportation access through shuttles or weekend bus routes.

11. Create infrastructure to allow light processing and wholesale aggregation and distribution at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market.

12. Support local food processing and distribution outside of the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market.

KK&P is working with representatives from the Charlotte Area Transit System, Mecklenburg County Health Department and from the city’s Transportation, Economic Development, Planning, and Housing & Neighborhood Services departments. Others involved in the study are local consulting firm Suede Onion and the nonprofit Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council and F.A.R.M.S., which works in the Southeast to protect family farms and farmers.