The scenery along Green Hope School Road, off N.C. 55 in Cary, tells a familiar story; our rural landscape is being reshaped, the fields and farms replaced by housing developments. Yet as I drive past newly paved streets lined with brick houses, I discover a farm stand that is connecting people to North Carolina's agricultural roots.
Inside it looks like a gourmet food store. The produce has been cleaned, every visible stem and bug removed. Peppers, tomatoes and potatoes are displayed in round baskets atop sleek, white farm carts. One tall refrigerator holds plastic bags filled with greens and salad mix, the other eggs, cheese and paper-wrapped chicken breasts. A notebook filled with free recipes sits beside the cash register. Small blue and white signs identify the produce and describe the farmers who grow it. Wire mesh baskets cover paper cups filled with samples of peach pie and pimento cheese. "We do a lot of tastings," says Norma Burns, the Chatham County farmer who runs the stand, "because we want people to understand how good local produce tastes."
This is not your typical farm stand. About the size of a living room, it operates beside the swimming pool at Highcroft, a planned community with 289 homes. A small section of the stand is in a storage room, the rest of it tucked under a blue tarp. Parents wander in carrying beach towels, with kids dressed in brightly colored swimsuits trailing behind them. Spacious, two-story homes sit across the street, 100 yards away in each direction.
Petite with stylish strawberry blond hair, dressed casually but elegantly, Burns is not your typical farmer. After a successful career as an architect, this former Raleigh City Councilwoman retired with her husband to the small Chatham County town of Bennett, where she grows herbs and heirloom (non-hybrid) vegetables at Bluebird Hill Farm. She now spends 50 hours each week managing the Highcroft farm stand, collecting the produce, preparing it for sale, selling it, then distributing the profits to each farmer. She opens the stand every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
With her design skills and marketing savvy, Burns has created a new kind of farm stand, one that is tailored to suit people who can afford west Cary's comfortable homes and suburban lifestyle. The stand gives these Cary residents a chance to appreciate one of the Triangle's lesser-known luxuries: our bounty of locally grown produce. At the same time, it gives farmers a new audience.
About 12 farmers contribute produce to the Highcroft stand, most of them from Chatham County. Some of the more unusual items, like lemon cucumbers and lime basil, come from Burns' garden. She tells me her biggest fear is that the Piedmont will one day lose its genetic diversity, then shows me a bag filled with her lamb's quarters. I love greens, but I've never heard of this one. Known also as pigweed, the plant traveled to the United States with British colonists who enjoyed eating its diamond-shaped leaves. Sauted with a little garlic and olive oil it tastes like spinach, only nuttier. When I ask Burns how she learned about lamb's quarters, she laughs, "Just by reading. I'm one of those old hippies who stalked the wild asparagus with Euell Gibbons."
Burns started farming without pesticides after moving to Bluebird Hill in 1999. She shared her harvest with friends, then sold it to 16 different restaurants throughout Raleigh, Carrboro and Southern Pines. In the summers she had more fresh herbs than she could sell, so she dried them, creating spice rubs for meat. Soon she added vinegars, sachets and teas like "summer tea," made with four kinds of mint and lemon verbena, to her repertoire.
When Highcroft developers Bob King and Colen Davidson decided to open the farm stand, they approached Burns and other farmers with hopes that one would agree to manage the stand and stock it with their produce. They saw it as a feel-good amenity for the suburban neighborhood. "There aren't any markets out that way, and we wanted residents to have one," Davidson says. Burns saw it as an opportunity to sell her products while promoting local farmers and sustainable agriculture. "I thought, if an amenity like this, in this somewhat sterile environment, can get people in touch with something more basic, get them to value good wholesome food and environmental issues, then I'm interested. That's something I signed onto a long time ago."
Burns knew she couldn't grow all the produce; instead she took responsibility for designing the stand and representing the other farmers. From the beginning, she understood that buying food from a farm stand might be like speaking a new language for Highcroft residents unfamiliar with N.C. produce or with little time to prepare it.
"The public's expectation for food retail has been driven higher by businesses like Whole Foods Market and Dean & DeLuca," she says. "I didn't want anything to get in the way of our customers' ability to appreciate local produce."
Challenge came from the farmers, who worried the stand was too slick, that it wouldn't work because it didn't look like a farm stand. "You've never sold your produce at a market, you don't even look like a farmer," they said.
"Well I am who I am, and that's a farmer. I'm the new farmer," she says. "Every market is different based on the people it attracts. And I made design decisions early on to give the stand a sophisticated appearance because that's what our customers expect. I wouldn't take it to Carrboro, but it's been well received by our clientele."
By designing the stand to appeal to people who are more committed to summer swim meets than organic vegetables, Burns has capitalized on the flexibility a farm stand offers. Brian Sturm, a landscape architect and Charlotte native who studied farm stands in Rockingham County as a graduate student, says one reason farm stands are still around is they have evolved over time. In the '60s and '70s, farm stands sold one product like peaches or strawberries. It was a way for farmers to sell produce too ripe to ship wholesale. People bought it by the bushel, took it home and canned it to eat during the winter. But few people can fruit and vegetables today. So farm stands now offer a variety, giving farmers another way to market their produce directly to consumers.
Response to the Highcroft stand has been positive but unpredictable. Customers come from Highcroft as well as other nearby neighborhoods. "We usually have about 50 people each weekend," Burns says. "Still, some weeks are great, while others are not. Why we're busy at one time and not another has been the hardest thing for me to figure out."
Jim LeTendre, who runs Sunny Slope Farms with a partner, gives Burns his greenhouse-grown tomatoes each week. He sells his produce at seven different markets and supports Burns' farm stand because she has a chance to educate consumers. "Norma sells my tomatoes while maintaining my product's individuality and identity," he says. "That's very important, and it's better marketing for me than selling at a grocery store."
Highcroft developers want to open a second stand when they complete Cameron Pond, a similar west-Cary development with 350 homes priced from $350,000 to $900,000. Davidson says he hopes Burns will run that one as well. But is her model sustainable? She says the work has been harder and more complex than she expected. The developers invested $12,000 in the stand, for refrigerators, carts, paint and promotion, but they may need to invest more.
"A free-standing structure, away from the pool, is critical," Burns says. "A commission definitely needs to be paid to the farmer, whether it's me or someone else, who does all the administration. Plus the advertising must be continuous, so people don't forget we're here." One avenue is the Internet. Already she's sending out e-mails, advertising new products and encouraging people to reserve produce early then pick it up on Saturday.
"If we want people to speak our language, we have to put things in front of them in a way they can respond to and appreciate," Burns says.
Burns plans to keep the Highcroft stand open through November. If you would like to join the Highcroft farm stand listserv, e-mail email@example.com. For information about other farm stands across the state, go to www.NCFarmFresh.com .