Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald
Make a food connection—and perhaps even a friend connection as well—at the many Western North Carolina tailgate and farmers markets.
Succulent strawberries, vine-ripe tomatoes, fresh cut flowers, artisan cheeses—these are just a small sampling of the variety of offerings at local farmer and tailgate markets across Western North Carolina. The region is blessed with a bountiful selection of markets where farmers are ready, willing, and able to talk with customers about their products—what they are, how they were grown, and even how to prepare them when you take them home. A visit to the market is a smorgasbord of color, texture, and taste.
“We have a wonderful mix of markets across the region,” says Molly Nicholie, Program Director – Local Food Campaign for ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project). “Five days a week there is a different market available just in Buncombe County alone.”
Nicholie explains ASAP’s mission—helping keep family farmers farming and connecting them with local markets to sell their products. ASAP produces an annual Local Food Guide, which includes a detailed listing of all the markets in the region and helps local markets and in establishing markets.
ASAP stresses that our choices matter when we buy local by keeping value in the local community; building community resilience; strengthening community ties; creating the food system that we want; and celebrating our character and heritage.
Some of the local tailgate markets now accept SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards with the goal of making fresh foods accessible.
At the Market
On the day of each market around Western North Carolina, you will find both organizers and vendors getting an early start. “Organizers start early around sunrise setting up signs, raising our giant ‘Farm to Market Today’ flag, and getting the site ready for vendors,” says Rob Elliot, with the Fairview Tailgate Market. “About 15-20 vendors show up around 8:15 and start setting up tents and tables. We have local musicians who play a variety of music as well. Customers pass through from 9AM until 1PM. Fairview is a rural community, so there are a lot of good old friends that visit with each other, as well as new connections made.”
A good market has not only produce, but also meats, cheeses, breads, and eggs, plus craft vendors. Variety is key with unusual produce such as nettles, Romanesco broccoli, and watermelon radishes you just don’t find at your local grocery. Most markets strive to have a balance of primarily farmers with some crafters. Fees to sell at the market vary from as low as $5 per week up to $30 per week. A flat rate for the entire season is also available for vendors at most markets.
The East Asheville Tailgate Market, located in the parking lot of Groce United Methodist Church on Tunnel Road, has between 20 and 30 vendors at market each week.
“It’s a little different each week because of day vendors who join some markets and full-time vendor schedule conflicts, but we try to keep a variety of products available every market,” says Hanna Zalesky, with the East Asheville Tailgate Market. “We estimate that about 300 people come through each week.”
“We see both returning and more new customers each year,” says Lisa McBride, market manager at the Jackson County Tailgate Market. “Each market is different, depending on what is going on in town, what the weather is like, how many vendors we have.”
Each vendor has an interesting background and story to tell. When visiting a market, make sure you take time to chat with the vendors—and sample some of their products if possible.
Nikki Wright, of Mrs. B’s Homestyle Eatery, is one of these vendors you’ll find at the East Asheville Tailgate Market. She sells mini coconut and pecan pies, caramel sauce, and mini red velvet cheesecake bites.
“The business is named after my mom, Brenda, who is the best cook that I know,” says Wright. “My mom grew up on a farm with 15 siblings. We were fortunate enough to have a garden and be friends with a farmer who would provide us with fresh meat, eggs, and vegetables. My mom passed down several recipes to me, including the coconut pie that I sell at the markets. Whenever I have a question about food, I always call my mom.”
Dotting Your ‘I’s; Crossing Your ‘T’s
Tailgate market vendors must complete an application form and be approved to participate in local markets. Local tailgate market organizers are looking for a good mix of vendors, no resellers, with some even having geographic restrictions.
Farmers may work with ASAP to obtain Appalachian Grown™ Certification, which signifies that their farm products are grown or raised in Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachian Mountains. In addition, farmers may also apply for organic certification through the USDA for their products.
Other restrictions apply to prepared goods, such as the Eat Pique products that chef Mike Vitelli brings to the East Asheville Tailgate Market each week. His line of honey pickled mustard seed condiment spreads features varieties such as Bopp’n Beet and Habanero Heat.
“I produce an acidified food, so I was required to take a two-part course offered by North Carolina State University (NCSU) on safe practices involved in production of acidified foods,” says Vitelli. “When I received my certificate, I then had to submit my recipe process for each of my products to NCSU, with a sample for testing. They then provided me with a process authority letter breaking down best practices for production. I also must produce my product in a commercial kitchen. We are lucky to have many shared use kitchen options in this area of the state. I produce at the community kitchen located in Tryon.”
WNC Farmers Market
Tucked away on Brevard Road, on the western end of Asheville near I-40, the WNC Farmers Market is one of four regional farmers markets owned by the State of North Carolina and operated by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Open seven days a week, year-round, it consists of five open-air truck sheds for farmers and dealers, with one shed designated for certified farmers selling direct to the consumer. The market has a small dealers building and two large wholesale buildings, which offer produce year-round to grocery stores, restaurants, institutions, and roadside markets. The retail section of the market, on your right as you drive in, offers a variety of products—fresh produce, honey, jams, crafts, and much more.
Bill Teague and his business partner, Les Meinhart, are owners of Teague’s Country Corner, located in the retail section. Their offerings include Amish butter, locally produced sausage from Alexander Farms, honey and sorghum molasses, chow chow, pickles, salsa, knives, baskets made in Africa, roasted and boiled peanuts, over 100 flavors of jelly/jams, and both traditional and unique produce, much of which comes from the wholesale section of the WNC Farmers Market.
“If I see the odd and unusual vegetable down there, I’ll get it,” says Meinhart. Customer favorites are gold beets, eight ball zucchinis, and cubanelle peppers.
Since 1998, Teague has worked to develop a mix of products to offer his customers that are both high quality and in demand. He wants his customers to “find the product that you are looking for and the quality that you are looking for—we try and buy the best produce that we can find,” he says.
The WNC Farmers Market is unique from many of the local tailgate markets in that it is also a tourist destination. It is not unusual to see visitors unloading from tour buses to spend time shopping in the retail area. Gloria Jacobs and her niece, Tina Dupree, both from Columbia, South Carolina, stopped by on their way to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
“We love to come by here,” says Jacobs. “We just get whatever looks good. We bought carrots, tomatoes, and special made sauces. We usually buy apples and take some home to family and friends.”
Jacobs says she likes to shop at the WNC Farmers Market because “it’s fresh—it doesn’t pass through so many hands. Here, it is fresher, and fresher is always better.”
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Don’t be dismayed when fall rolls into winter—there are still tailgate markets to shop. Winter markets have exploded recently, with four already in Buncombe County. Farmers are extending the season by using greenhouses, offering storage crops, or growing through the winter.
“People are really getting creative with their growing practices, and season extension is one of the exciting things that is going on in the region,” says Nicholie.
ASAP shares the latest data available from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, where in Western North Carolina direct sales by farmers to consumers increased 69 percent between 2007 to 2012. For the rest of the state, there was a decrease of three percent; for the United States, there was an eight percent increase.
These figures are a testament of the importance of farmers in the region and the population’s desire to buy the freshest produce available.
“We have smaller mountain farmers that have more adaptability to market demands than some of the larger farms,” says Nicholie. “If there is a consumer demand for mixed produce, they have a little more ability to shift their production on a smaller scale than some of the bigger farms that have customized equipment.”
While some local grocers and restaurants offer products from local farmers, shopping at a farmers or tailgate market allows the consumer to connect with their food and meet the folks who grew it.
“People like to shop at tailgate markets because of the friendly atmosphere and so they can meet face to face with their farmer,” says Eric Christianson of Pisgah Gourmet. “You only need a doctor or a policeman a few times in your life, but you need a farmer three times per day.” From his space at the East Asheville Tailgate Market he offers samples of mushroom tea and is happy to talk to customers about the products he offers, which include Oyster and Lion’s Mane mushrooms and herbal/mushroom tinctures.
“With the recent attention that has been brought to factory farming, pesticides, and GMOs, there are more and more people who are looking for quality food that is oftentimes grown on a much smaller level,” says Casey McCully, market manager at the Haywood County Tailgate Market. “In the same way, there are more and more people who are seeing this gap in food availability and are willing to devote themselves to providing this service to their community.
“Farmers markets create a great place for farmers and consumers to ‘speed date.’ If a consumer is looking for grass fed beef, free range eggs, organic vegetables, or even a certain price point, they can go booth to booth talking to the actual producers of their food to find the right match for them. It creates a great sense of community. Rather than going to a grocery store (even one that sells local, sustainable foods and crafts) and having an impersonal encounter, at the farmers market you can associate a face with the person who raised your vegetables or gathered your eggs. When your cattle farmer knows you by name and saves your favorite cut for you, it assures you that this person is really doing everything in their ability to create the best product for you.”
Fairview Tailgate Market’s Elliot explains that many vendors use markets as a place to make a personal connection with customers. Many vendors are just starting out and do not have the financial means for a store front, so markets allow them to get their businesses going.
Katie Rosenberger, of Sprouting Life Homestead in East Asheville, says, “We sell at the market because we believe in the importance of eating and buying local goods, building community, and following our passion to live a more sustainable lifestyle. We are selling produce, tie dye, upcycled art, and flowers. All our produce and flowers are grown without the use of chemicals, and most of the art we sell is repurposed and recycled. We think people like to shop at local markets because they want to know where their food is coming from and who grew it. They appreciate handmade and homegrown. We look forward to meeting people from our community, developing relationships, and contributing to healthy eating in Western North Carolina.”
Local tailgate markets not only offer quality products, but oftentimes entertainment and an opportunity for the community to gather. Neighbors stop to chat and vendors come to know their regular customers by name.
“They are lively, community events where people can interact with their neighbors and interact with the folks that produce the food or crafts they are buying,” says Elliot. “I think they are so popular because of the social nature of them. Our market was established to support the School Health Advisory initiatives of Fairview Elementary School. Primarily, our market helps better integrate local farmers and producers with our school community by hosting the market on school grounds.”
“In a world where we are becoming more and more disconnected on personal levels in almost everything else, the market provides us with a glimpse of the way things used to be,” adds East Asheville Tailgate Market’s Vitelli. “It gives you a sense of community, and that goes for both the customer and the vendor.”
Take some time this summer to visit a local market. You will walk away with not only delicious fresh products, but also with a sense of contentment—in your food, your farmers, and your community.
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