When Wayne Harris makes his way to the Elizabeth City Downtown Waterfront Market each Saturday morning, he’s not only looking for fresh produce, but also social interaction, and of course he’s also keeping an eye on the economic climate.
Harris is the director of the Elizabeth City/Pasquotank County Economic Commission. He’s also a strong advocate of farmer’s markets such as the one here.
It’s the sort of amenity that as an advocate for economic development, he’s excited to promote.
It’s also an important component in Harris’s cultural life.
“I would feel culturally bereft if the market were not there for me on Saturday morning,” says Harris. “It is the first stop. Anything I can buy there I do buy there.”
This week is the 15th annual National Farmer’s Market Week. According to the USDA, it is a week that celebrates the farmer’s market and the growing trend that has taken to the Albemarle region over the last seven years.
Actually, there has been a farmer’s market in Elizabeth City for some time. The original market was located at the county Agricultural Extension compound on Pritchard Street. But the current market overlooking the Pasquotank River, well it’s more in line with the national trend, something some might dub “boutique” markets.
Boutique, because these markets are more than farmers selling produce; some, like the Elizabeth City market, also include artisans and local entertainment, creating as much a social scene as a market scene.
“It’s definitely a social event,” says Courtney Birdsall, Elizabeth City market director. “I think people look forward to seeing their friends.”
Birdsall is the market’s third director in seven seasons. She began as a vendor selling her handmade jewelry. She says if all she made one week was her booth fee, it was still worth her while.
“I looked forward to it,” she says. “I loved going down and doing business.”
Birdsall says the market vendors in Elizabeth City are diverse. While the farmers are the anchors, there are plant sellers, herbalists, crafters and even coffee and bread for sale.
She would like to see more come of the market in the future. She says offering weekly entertainment is something she would like to do more of, but her
budget doesn’t allow for paid musicians.
When musicians do perform, however, she says it’s sort of like a backyard party with all of your neighbors.
That same sort of festive atmosphere can be found in Edenton each Saturday morning as well. Founded five years ago, the Edenton Farmer’s Market has grown in popularity and the event’s co-founder, Dr. Vero Brantjens, says it too is a culturally significant event.
“We had a farmer’s market last week and it was rainy,” recalled Brantjens. “And we’re under cover at the agricultural center. They have a big overhang. I was just commenting to other people because I know a lot of people by now, I was saying, ‘Look what a nice atmosphere. People are all talking together.
“I was thinking, you don’t find that anywhere.”
But then you do find it. You find at the market each Saturday and while it is a consequence of putting together such an event, it’s not the purpose.
The Edenton market began with the Edenton-Chowan Environmental Group. They were pursuing ways to “green” their community, says Brantjens.
Brantjens recalls that some of her group’s members suggested that instead of doing expensive projects dealing with things like solar, perhaps something with vegetables would be a good idea.
The group did a survey and the result was that people were interested in having a farmer’s market.
Brantjens says their market began with a flower lady, baked goods and some folks with local crops like blueberries, grapes or strawberries.
“And they would come for as long as that crop would last and we started that way,” she says.
Five years later they have three farmers providing produce – she says that’s the limit because of the number of market patrons.
The market also includes baked goods, fresh eggs, and a variety of meats, including lamb. There are no arts and crafts at this market, and that is by design.
“I tell you from the beginning I had to put my foot down and said no crafts,” says Brantjens. “You have a fellow who makes wonderful birdhouses and then the next thing you have are shoddy pen holders and then you have a flea market.”
Brantjens says she maintains an email newsletter and sends out weekly lists of who and what will be attending this Saturday’s market.
This Saturday’s market in Edenton, by the way, will be a celebration of National Farmer’s Market Week. Brantjens says there will be activities for the kids, horse and wagon, an old fire truck, a bee hive demonstration, chicks and rabbits.
The markets are playing an important role in the cultural lives of both communities, that point is clear. But there is also one other component that should not go unchecked, the economic impact.
Harris points out that in terms of the bigger picture, the Saturday market provides the area with a richer cultural offering, and it is also a point to make when presenting Elizabeth City as a possible future home for one company or another.
Harris says the market is on what he calls his “short list items.” That means that if a company has narrowed Elizabeth City down as one of several potential locations to set up shop, a weekly farmer’s market is one of the selling points.
“That is when the amenities begin to make a difference,” says Harris.
And they do make a difference for a lot of people. According to the USDA, nearby Virginia has one of the largest number of markets in the country, and North Carolina is on the top 10 list of states with expanding markets across the country.
It’s the sort of thing people look for when searching for a vibrant community.
The Downtown Waterfront Market is located on the green at Mariners’ Wharf Park, overlooking the Pasquotank River. It is open each Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., now through Oct. 18.
The Edenton Farmer’s Market is located just off Hwy. 17 at the agricultural center, located on Hwy. 32. They are open Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon, now through the end of November, with one holiday market in December.