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From field to farmers market 

I used to be a smug market shopper before I learned the meaning of field work.

I'll admit to a certain sense of self-righteousness when I make my weekly pilgrimage to the farmers market. Up early on a Saturday, sometimes before the sun, driving on empty roads through the first steeply slanted light cutting across the landscape, it's easy to feel exceptional. While others are blearily pouring their first cup of coffee, I'm already demonstrating my support of our local food system.

Yet no matter how early I arrive at the market, I'm never there first. Even on the darkest, rainiest, coldest mornings, the vendors greet me within booths strategically arranged with baskets, coolers and scales. I merely had to find matching socks and a T-shirt that wasn't too wrinkled; they had to load up hundreds of pounds of produce or meat before driving in from dozens of miles away, then unloading it all and making it pretty on rough wooden tables. When I pick up a tomato, I'm holding a short story that began an hour's drive away in a field I've never seen.

On Walnut Ridge Farms, that field lies in China Grove in Rowan County. Friday morning finds owner Daryl Simpson starting his farm day at 10:30, after working an early-morning part-time shift at UPS.

"My goal is to pick on Friday and serve on Saturday," Simpson says, "to get you the most fresh items you can get." He's been in the farming business for just two years, bringing vegetables, eggs and chicken to the Matthews Community Farmers Market.

After a quick breakfast and chicken care, the amiable new farmer does a walk-through of his fields, to check for insect damage and see what's ready to pick. "Basically, it's me harvesting everything," he says. "[My wife] Tonya helps out when it really gets tough, but on Fridays she's not available." He picks each vegetable by hand, stashing peppers, okra, tomatoes in clear plastic totes before carrying them to the truck on his shoulder.

Simpson spends about eight hours on field work, including soil preparation and other maintenance chores, before heading back to the house, a 10-minute drive away in Concord. But it's not time yet to relax with a beer in front of the TV. The harvest has to be washed and prepped for sale, in a special processing area next to the house.

Tomatoes are rinsed; carrots, beets and greens are bundled with rubber bands or sealed in zip-top gallon bags.

While Tonya packages chickens processed the previous day, their 4-year-old daughter Emma helps Dad wash squash. Bedtime comes late for everyone on Friday night.

Not far down the road, on Wild Turkey Farms, harvesting takes on a different meaning. Since 1998, Lee and Domisty Menius have raised pastured pork, chicken, beef and lamb on land that's been in the family for 140 years. For them, harvesting means loading animals onto a truck for delivery to a local processing plant, with frozen chops, wings and sausages returning a week later.

The farm's primary products are pork and chicken. "Pigs are relatively cooperative," says Lee, explaining that he can load them without assistance. He parks the trailer in their pen a day or two early, feeding the pigs inside and sorting which ones are ready for slaughter.

Catching and crating the chickens, on the other hand, is a family affair. While their 8- and 10-year-old sons man the crates, Lee and Domisty capture up to 400 birds in an hour. Not all the squawking comes from the animals. "There's a lot of bitching by the kids," jokes Lee. "'It's his turn to grab the chicken; I don't wanna grab the chicken.'"

Although their meats are wrapped and labeled by the processor, the farmers have the task of keeping it all cold during blazing hot Carolina summers. After dealing for years with ice and coolers, they recently invested in a refrigerated trailer. "It's the best move we ever made," Lee says. Prior to that purchase, he had to get up at 4 a.m. on market days to put iced coolers on a truck; now he can load whenever he has the time. "Saturday, I get home from market, I can load up the trailer and I'm good for the next week."

While Lee can sleep in until 5:30 on market mornings, over at Walnut Ridge, the alarms start going off at 3 a.m. Tonya Simpson rises first, to write prices on the whiteboard sign, set up the cash drawer and pack Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) baskets. Daryl gets up an hour later. "My first thing is to get my cup of coffee," he laughs, "and then out the door I go to start loading up."

The truck full, Simpson leaves home by 6:15 for the 45-minute drive to Matthews. He prefers to arrive an hour early to avoid jockeying for parking space in the aisle by his booth. Once unloaded, the rest of his time is spent arranging baskets of veggies and setting up his WiFi-connected register system.

For Lee, not only is the drive to the Davidson Farmers Market shorter, but with the freezer trailer, his setup is simple. "Five minutes before the market opens, I open the door, set up my table and I'm done."

By 8 a.m., each farmer stands ready to greet morning shoppers and play various roles. "You've got to be the farmer, the salesman and the chef," says Lee, adding that a good vendor should know at least two ways to cook everything he sells. Both men understand the importance of connecting with customers, answering questions and suggesting recipes. "People want to talk," says Simpson. "This is their Saturday morning adventure."

He's right. My self-righteous market experience depends on that connection with the people who grow my food. It requires not only understanding where my tomatoes come from and how my chicken was raised, but appreciating the work that brings them to me. While I head to my kitchen to contemplate lunch, the farmers are packing up and starting home for another day of work. There are hogs to slop and fields to maintain, in preparation for next week's market.

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