Red, white & local at South Durham market

Jun. 28, 2014 @ 09:31 AM

When the British sought to collect ever more taxes from the colonies, it was agriculture that allowed the American colonists the freedom to protest and, ultimately, declare independence.  As an agrarian-dominated society with plentiful land resources, America was at least able to feed its citizens throughout their multiyear fight for self-government.

The small family farms that comprise the South Durham Farmers’ Market continue that long American tradition of working the land and providing sustenance to their families and community. Our nation’s ability to grow its own food has resulted in a positive agricultural trade balance for more than 50 years, helping to ensure the safety and stability of our food supply. 

However, since our Revolutionary War days, we have become increasingly removed from the processes that stock our grocery shelves: We have gone from 90 percent of the population living on a farm or plantation to only 2 percent. In North Carolina, the number of farms has steadily decreased from more than 300,000 in 1950 to fewer than 50,000 today. Most of the decrease in farms is certainly due to a shift from subsistence farms to larger, more mechanized operations, but there is also less cropland in production, much of it returning to pine forest.

Despite all of these trends, the number of farmers’ markets nationwide has risen by 62 percent over the past five years. North Carolina is tied for ninth place with Iowa for number of markets. I am optimistic that this growth signals a rising interest in local food, and an enduring return to our nation’s farming roots. 

Managing the South Durham Farmers’ Market has given me reason to hope. While we welcome both century-old farms and farms in their first year of production, I would guess that almost a third of our agricultural vendors are in their 20s and 30s—young compared to the national average of 57 years old for farmers. Our farmers, young and old, possess many of the characteristics that we like to think of as quintessentially American:  hardworking, resourceful, daring, and hopeful.

These farmers, like many across North Carolina, have moved away from growing homogenous cash crops, like tobacco, in favor of crop diversification and the use of traditional methods of agriculture that would be recognizable to our Founding Fathers. The consequent wide variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables is plain to see at the market.

Independence Day is a time to celebrate our freedom and achievements as a nation. To observe the occasion, I encourage you to enjoy a very American meal of juicy burgers with ripe tomato slices, sweet corn on the cob, crisp coleslaw, and peach pie, all grown and raised in the 12th state to ratify the Constitution. Happy Fourth of July!

Elizabeth Zander is market manager for the South Durham Farmers’ Market, open 8  noon each Saturday and 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday at Greenwood Commons Shopping Center, 5410 NC Highway 55.