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Durham Farmers' Market to break ground


One recent Saturday morning at the Durham Farmers' Market, Nancy Hare Robbins watched her 7-year-old daughter Lily play her violin for passersby. She played her favorite tune, "Oh Susannah," and a small pile of change accumulated in her violin case.

The only thing not charming about the 6-year-old Durham Farmers' Market on Morris Street is the blacktop parking lot on which it sits.

And even if it charms some, it's temporary.

If all goes according to the plans set forth by the Durham Central Park Organization, the community gardening organization SEEDS, and the Durham Farmers' Market Pavilion Project, by market time next spring, vendors and shoppers will have a permanent space for their produce, baked goods, crafts and weekly conversation.

The Farmers' Market Pavilion will be a 9,200-square-foot, wood-trussed structure within sight of the current market. With enough covered space for over 40 vendors' stalls, it will hold at least 500 more people than the existing heat-stroke inducing aisle, according to Ellen Cassilly, the pavilion's architect.

"I see this as a key pin in the redevelopment of downtown Durham," Cassilly says. "If you ask any of the developers, I'm sure that they are using the farmers' market within their list of amenities."

Part of the ongoing five-acre Durham Central Park project, the pavilion project is being funded jointly with money from institutional and corporate grants as well as individual donations.

For one, development and construction firm Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse recently pledged $50,000 toward development of the pavilion, which is slated to break ground this November. Their matching-funds pledge brought the money raised to within about $100,000 of the stated goal of $350,000 needed for the first phase of construction. The firm is also in the midst of the construction activities of the downtown American Tobacco Historic District.

Elizabeth Gibbs, the market's manager and only paid employee, said support of the project has been overwhelming, although volunteers are always needed.

Gibbs has been manager since 2000, and in her five years, the workload has increased steeply as the Durham Farmers' Market has come alive. Born a loose conglomeration of vendors in the parking lot of George's Garage restaurant, the market has grown to over 40 vendors. And they all want their own space to sell.

In accordance with the Durham Farmers' Market's mission statement, all produce is grown within a maximum of 70 miles around Durham. Each farmer must apply for membership in January and have her or his farm inspected. Last year the market received 11 new applications and accepted eight.

Running from April to November, the market must contain 75 percent farmer vendors because "we're a farmers' market, not a flea market," says Gibbs, snacking on a whole cucumber, Popsicle-style. That said, there are plenty of artisans selling colorful soaps, handmade baskets, petunias and warm pineapple empanadas.

Gibbs eagerly awaits the new building. "The new pavilion will provide protection from the elements, a permanent landmark--an everyday reminder that the market will be back--and an architectural enhancement to the Durham Central Park and downtown Durham as a whole."

The market will be the pavilion's primary tenant, but Cassilly foresees everything from small concerts to kids' birthday parties taking place in and around the structure.

A "demo kitchen" is also in the works. A place where farmers could take classes in pickling and canning, the kitchen would theoretically ease the spiky nature of a farmers' income throughout the year. "Sometimes people think that farmers' markets are a fun weekend thing, but this is what these people do, this is their livelihood," Cassilly says.

And an area has been recognized at the site for SEEDS' Durham Inner-City Gardeners (DIG) program, a youth program designed to teach business and conflict-resolution skills through the gardening of small plots.

One SEEDS volunteer, Earl Matlock, distinguished the Durham Farmers' Market from Raleigh's by the amount of locally grown produce. "The difference is you can buy and resell in Raleigh. A lot of it is resale. We're a lot of organic here. You get the actual flavor of the food," he says.

Rich Cunningham and his wife, Zulane, come every week to sell their proudly non-hydroponically grown Sunny Slope Tomatoes. The couple travels from their home in Bear Creek to farmers' markets in Carrboro, Sanford, Fearrington, Southern Village in Chapel Hill and others. Rich Cunningham says Durham's has become a can't-miss on the weekends and is second in size after Carrboro's.

Glancing around in the sunshine, Nancy Hare Robbins saw her community. "I think we're all trying to recapture the small-town spirit in our lives."

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