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Hunting for local food at the Regional Farmers Market 

Tomatoes, Peaches and... Bananas?

On a Wednesday morning, the Charlotte Regional Farmers market sits quiet beneath the clear skies of early autumn. Plenty of parking spaces welcome the few shoppers strolling the wide, empty aisle of Building B. Without the Saturday crowds, the vendors inside seem diminished by the enormous space. Many booths do sit empty, covered by sheets, with signs still broadcasting "fresh," "local" and "home-grown."

Yet even at this low-traffic time, vendors' tables brim with the bounty of the Carolinas' transition from summer to fall — tomatoes and peaches share space with carrots, greens, bananas...

Wait a minute, bananas?

The Charlotte Regional market, located on Yorkmont Road near South Tryon, is run and funded by the North Carolina State Department of Agriculture, along with three others in Asheville, Greensboro and Raleigh. While Tarheel summers can feel pretty tropical, our borders still haven't welcomed any banana plantations. So what's the deal with their sharing space with watermelon and sweet potatoes pulled from Carolina soil?

Believe it or not, these flagrant imports still fit within the market's mission which, according to manager Amie Newsome is farmer-focused. "These markets exist to give farmers an outlet to market what they grow," she says. "They were developed with farmers in mind."

And yes, bananas play a role here. In 1985, when the 22-acre site was opened, Charlotte boasted few local farmers markets, so finding retail outlets was truly a challenge for even mid-sized agriculturalists. Today, with 27 markets listed by the Mecklenburg County Health Department, the Regional one continues to pull in a broad customer base by offering convenience and variety.

While Newsome doesn't have a way to quantify the traffic coming through, she does manage four large sheds housing produce, meats, cheeses, preserved foods, handcrafted items and nursery plants. In the summer, up to 130 vendors vie for shoppers' dollars on a busy Saturday morning, and even in the quieter winter months, you'll still find about 70 sellers here with their offerings. And many of those vendors are there during the week. The market remains open Tuesday through Saturday year-round, with additional Sunday hours during the busy summer growing season.

Now, for your average grower, leaving the fields five or six days a week to drive two hours and peddle potatoes in the city is not a viable option. So, while it departs from the starry-eyed picture of overall-clad farmers standing behind the tables, Newsome says resellers serve an important role for area producers.

"Some of them go to local farmers that just don't have the employees to go to a market. So they offer a way for farmers to be able to sell their goods." She says many resellers have ongoing relationships with individual farmers, and are nearly as familiar with the products as growers are. "They know that they are going to get asked the questions when the people come in. So they have to have a working knowledge of the product they're selling."

A short conversation with the proprietor of Joe's Produce supports this. He is cagey about revealing his sources in the presence of competing vendors, but says he's worked with area farmers for years. Besides that, he says, "I grew up on a farm. All this material I'm selling here, I'm familiar with."

As Newsome describes the principles behind the market, the focus is not to distinguish it from smaller, more locally focused ones around the city. In truth, this market is competing with grocery stores. And in that competition, convenience is key. That's where the bananas come in.

Newsome readily acknowledges that bananas don't grow in North Carolina, but also contends, "Most people like bananas. So, a mother with some kids comes to the market. They get their meats and their vegetables, but then they have to go to the grocery store to get their bananas. So [by selling them here] we can actually try and be a one-stop shop."

As Joe says, "I buy bananas and I buy lemons, but that's just something that goes along with a produce market. When people are shopping here, they want to buy as much stuff as they possibly can." He draws the line at selling non-US products he says, while casting a suggestive glance at the tables of nearby vendors.

For her part, Newsome recognizes the market tradition pulls in a diverse customer base. She knows several of the daily booths offer products familiar to residents from Asia, South America and other parts of the world, such as bitter melon, papaya and yes, bananas. "It meets the demand of the people coming in, people that are from other areas of the world," she says.

"In order to keep this facility going, we have to have both. We have to have produce from North and South Carolina farmers," she continues, "But in order to meet the needs of our clientele, we do have to bring in from other countries. So we sell everything from North Carolina, regional, local, national and around the world."

Which begs the question: while variety is all well and good, how do locally-minded shoppers find what they're looking for amid all the options? A major reorganization of the three primary sheds this year seeks to help clarify origins.

Starting at the entrance, the sheds are lettered A, B, C in a row, with E off to the side with food concessions and nursery plants (D is an empty wholesale space). A small map of the market posted online and at the entrance to each building provides descriptions of their contents. Building A, the open-sided shed at the head of the row, is labeled "Got to be NC," and according to Newsome is all North Carolina products.

Building B, which sees the heaviest customer traffic, is reserved for sellers who have committed to being at the market at least three days a week, year-round. This is where the resellers are, as well as a few local farmers, seafood and specialty items like wine, soaps and lotions. Building C offers local products from South Carolina, overflow from Building A, crafters and other "culinary delights."

Which means that in reality, local producers reside in each of the three primary buildings. However, the shoppers I talked to on a busy Saturday didn't seem at all fazed about the mélange of local, international and non-food offerings. Mike Dines says, "It's a big deal to support local," but enjoys the experience as much as the food. "It's fun to explore. You come with a list, but you also come to browse." Girlfriend Allison Smith says she depends on signage when she's looking for North Carolina produce, but adds, "We don't shy away from buying stuff that's not local, if you know it's not local."

Indeed, several of the resellers inside Building B are not bashful about sourcing produce from across the country, even for crops in season here. At one large stand, plastic-wrapped cauliflower and carrots with "Cal-Organic" tags sit among boxes of produce bearing familiar round bar-code stickers. Beneath, tomatoes sit in stacked boxes labeled "Produit du Canada." Meanwhile, across the aisle a hand-lettered sign boasts "Vine Ripen (sic) tomatoes from Lincolnton."

According to Newsome, this odd juxtaposition of international and local is due to the nature of commodity farming. She says growers contract to sellers before the season arrives, promising crops yet to ripen. So when the season arrives, resellers that don't have ongoing relationships with local farmers have to take what they can get.

Obviously, in spite of the method behind the market, it still pays to be an informed consumer. Vendor Harriet Baucom of Baucom's Best meats, points out that even in Building A, vendors are only required to produce 51 percent of what they sell. "The intent was to let people sell their neighbor's tomatoes, but I think it's left the door open to more than that." And gazing across the aisle, it's easy to spot a suspiciously uniform stack of fully-grown fennel, a bit early for our season.

Knowing what's in season helps, but there's one sure-fire method recommended by both customers and sellers: ask a vendor you trust. Baucom says she's happy to point inquiring shoppers toward local farmers she knows well. Inside Building B, Michele Lamb of Bosky Acres goat farm says she's still helping shoppers find their favorite stands after the big move. "That's the biggest thing I hear from my customers is 'Where are my regulars?'" It's all just another part of the service offered by your local farmers.

And, aside from food, that contact with producers is what Newsome seeks to offer at the market. "You get the added bonus of talking to the grower and asking, 'Where is it from?' 'How is it produced?' 'What's the difference between these two varieties?'" So whether your goal is freshness, local flavor or gluten-free organic and pasture-raised, all you have to do is ask.

Unless you're looking for local bananas.

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