A Market For Urban Farmers — If It Can Attract Customers
In the heat of a recent summer afternoon, Aaron Salley is shucking freshly picked corn. He’s joined by longtime friends Kwesi Wilson and Sherard Ozaka. Together they farm two acres of land in northern Forsyth County, and another acre on the south side.
Urban farmers are trying to fill the need for fresh produce in what’s considered a Winston-Salem food desert — something Salley knows about firsthand. He comes from one in a neighborhood just north of downtown.
"When we were growing up it was a Minute Market, there was a Bojangles, and you had to go up to University and go to Pizza Hut or something like that," he says. "When your options are chips and soda, you really don’t know anything else."
Luckily, Salley did have access to fresh produce through his father, Hasim, an avid gardener. He taught his son about the value of fresh food and the joys of growing things like tomatoes and cucumbers.
When his father died in November, Salley and his childhood friends Wilson and Ozaka decided to expand the small plot of land Hasim used for his garden and turn it into a functional farm.
That’s how Granville District Farms got its start. At pop-up stands and small markets across the city, they sell freshly picked watermelons, squash, cucumbers, chard and other vegetables — much of it tied to their soul food heritage — to fill the need for local produce.
"It’s the most important job I think you can have, especially in these times,” Salley says. " It’s a shortage of food, it’s a shortage of healthy food, so we want to bring that to the community."
But growing the food is only one part of the business. Finding places to sell the fruits and veggies of their labor is another.
Enter the Liberty Street Market.
It sits on a small tract just off U.S. 52, twin buildings with a look reminiscent of greenhouses. The market opened about five years ago amid hopes it would be an oasis in the food desert here, where commercial markets are few and far between.
So far it hasn’t worked out that way. It has yet to become a reliable place that provides access to locally grown produce. Instead, it’s mostly used as an event space for small get-togethers.
Now there’s an effort underway to give the market a fresh start, if people can get beyond its neglected past.
Organizers say the time is right, in part, because the COVID-19 outbreak forced people out of restaurants and back into the kitchen. They say the pandemic has put a renewed focus on the need for real food.
Megan Regan is an economist and chair of the city’s Urban Food Policy Council. She says COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the importance of urban farmers.
“So in a way it’s an opportunity for small-scale local farmers in all communities across the United States to really look at how these positive opportunities for both the supply and the demand side are unintended silver linings of the pandemic,” she says.
The market recently had a soft reboot. It was a word of mouth only launch, with just Granville District Farms and a couple of other area farmers, all from within five miles of the location. Customers are scarce, but it’s only a trial run.
Tiffany Turner is a food resilience project manager for the city of Winston-Salem. She says many people in the area rely on food assistance, and that’s something they’ll be able to use as the market returns.
“We think this is going to be different because of that prioritization of the local area, but then also because we’re going to accept SNAP/EBT," she says. "So we did get approved for a USDA permit to accept food stamps, and I think that is going to be a game-changer.”
Despite the focus the pandemic has put on fresh food, it’s nevertheless been a tough time for many farmers markets. No more crowding around booths looking for that perfect pepper or ripest tomato. That’s been replaced by social distancing and control of the flow of foot traffic.
Liberty Street faces another hurdle - its long-standing reputation for being underused.
Turner says she knows that’s a problem, but she remains optimistic about its future.
"I think it’s going to take some coalition building, and just the community realizing we’re going to keep coming out here," she says. "And as long as we’re able to show that I think it will build up support. But, you know, at the end of the day we’re going to look back and assess and say ‘this worked’ and ‘this didn’t.’ But we’re going to keep trying, I think. We’re going to keep trying.”
A grant gives organizers enough money to run about a dozen markets. They’ll run on Friday nights, and the next one is scheduled for mid-August.