Sheila Neal is as calm as a mother can be while her son Hank, an affable toddler, sends the last few carrots on his plate floorward. And sheâ€™s remarkably calm when you consider the pace she been keeping in preparation for the opening of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.
Neal, full-time market manager for three years, has been meeting with volunteersâ€”thereâ€™s a roster of 20 this yearâ€”and getting the special events schedule finalized. Last week was full of the same, along with a string of meetings like a Thursday evening discussion with the marketâ€™s meat committee. Even though itâ€™s the first market of the season, Neal said, there is going to be plenty waiting for the first round of customers.
â€œAt peak, we have about 60 farmers on a Saturday,â€ she said. â€œWeâ€™ll probably have 35 this week.â€
Thereâ€™ll be greens and radishes and crops like collards and cabbage that have wintered over. Most of the vegetable action at the farms this time of year is taking place in hoop houses or greenhouses. â€œWeâ€™ll also have cheeses, meats and eggs,â€ Neal said. â€œAnd pecans,â€ she added after remembering that Alfred DeLahassaye of Sweetwater Pecan Orchard is bringing along some of his seven different pecan varieties.
As for the rest of the season, Neal is looking forward to the return of the childrenâ€™s seedling event. On Saturday, April 21 vendors are donating sungold and other cherry tomato plants to children interested in gardening. The kids will get some advice from the marketâ€™s cadre of master gardeners on planting and soil. The kids are then invited to bring their plants back after 10 to 12 weeks to have their portraits taken while they hold up the fruits of their efforts.
â€œWhen we did this in 2005, we had 180 kids pick up seedlings and 30 of them came back to get their picture taken,â€ Neal said. â€œThey were adorable.â€ As for the rest of the year, look for the return of the marketâ€™s trademark tomato tasting along with more events that pair local farmers and chefs to help people get some ideas in developing menus and working with some of the more exotic varieties to grace the market.
While thereâ€™s plenty of activity in town, things are happening on a really big scale in the countryside.
Spring in their step
Visit Alex and Betsy Hitt in late summer and they might share a fatigue story or two of how the aches come on quicker than they did when the couple started Peregrine Farm in 1981 on a little piece of Alamance County a dozen or so miles from Carrboro.
But now, especially after a good dousing last week kicked their plants into overdrive, the Hitts are in high spirits and ready for Saturdayâ€™s market opening. For Betsy it means more than being open for business for a long stretch of Saturdays. It means seeing people she hasnâ€™t seen since last October.
â€œItâ€™s my social life,â€ she says. â€œWe couldnâ€™t do what we do without seeing friends at the market.â€
In peak season Peregrine Farm is very likely the most diverse and productive three and a half acres in the state. Last year, their innovations and careful development of different plants in conjunction with local restaurants and stores won them national honors. They represented the Southeast as one of four farms nationwide to win the annual Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture by the Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) program, a federal clearinghouse for best practices in sustainable agriculture.
And while the workload of their on season could whither the hardiest of laborers, last yearâ€™s off season was pretty enviable. The couple were part of a large group from the Triangle to attend the annual Terre Madre Slow Food Conference in Turin, Italy. The Slow Food movement, which has a huge following among local chefs and small farmers, is aimed in part at restoring the connection between consumers and farmers.
The Hitts toured small markets in Italy with Ben and Karen Barker, the chef-owners of Magnolia Grill and longtime friends and collaborators. As a result, The Hitts have new plantings of beans the Barkerâ€™s picked outâ€”just the beginning of a process of checking out the varietiesâ€™ requirements for soil and sun. Alex Hitt said knowing a crop well enough to put it into full production often takes three years or more. Betsy Hitt is especially excited about new eggplants being grown from seeds brought back from Italy. Last yearâ€™s trials were disappointing, but they tried some varieties this year that were â€œreally, really goodâ€ Betsy said. â€œWe hope these are the right ones. We wonâ€™t know until we pick the first few.â€
Other plants the Hitts have mastered and a quarter-acre plot with 10,000 head of lettuce is evidence of that. â€œTwoâ€“thirds of this is going to Weaver Street [Market],â€ Alex Hitt said as he adjusted the floating row cover, a gauze-like net that keeps tender crops from getting nailed by frost in the unpredictable spring weather. In the greenhouses, the Hitts look over the seedlings that are ready to fill in as crops in the field are harvested. â€œThis is third week of April,â€ Alex Hitt said, pointing to one set of flats. â€œThis over here is the first week of May.â€ The Hitts are longtime Farmers Market organizers and board members. Both remember the struggle to get the market built at its present site and both know the long process it took to get the market running as well as it is now.
â€œThe community support has always been there, always been strong, â€œBetsy Hitt said. â€œAnd I think now the market understands a little more how important that community support is.â€
Alex said the challenges ahead are incorporating more value-added foods. â€œThe market is seeing more diversity with meat, eggs and cheese.â€
The demand for space is growing along with the marketâ€™s reputation. â€œWe may expand the season,â€ Alex Hitt said. â€œWeâ€™re talking about maybe having a winter market.â€
As for whether or not that means shoppers will get a chance at Peregrine produce come December, well, you might want to ask them about that in August.
The Carrboro Farmers Market is open from 7 a.m. to noon Saturday through Dec. 22. The Wednesday Farmersâ€™ Market opens April 11. Hours are 3:30-6:30 p.m. On May 3, the Thursday Farmersâ€™ Market at Southern Village opens with hours from 3:30-6:30 p.m. More information about the market can be found at www.carrborofarmersmarket.com