The Sampson County Farmers Market is open three days a week, and on each of those days visitors to the market will find a group of local farmers — among others — with tables full of fresh, homegrown organic produce ready to sell. They have been there for years.
“We are here,” one of those farmers, Curtis Cummings, stated. “It’s slow, but steady. It’s improving.”
The market, open from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at the Clinton City Market on Lisbon Street, has as its ultimate aim to serve as a forum where local handmade and homegrown goods can be sold directly to consumers in an effort to promote locally-grown ingredients and locally-made products.
Homer Marshall, executive director of the Sampson Community Development Corporation, spearheaded an effort four years ago to utilize the City Market by having a Farmers Cooperative sell locally-grown produce during the annual harvest season. That effort has grown in recent years, with several hoophouses built to extend that season and a revamp last year aimed to grow the market beyond what is found in the fields — to bring “the best of the county to the heart of the city.”
Marshall said he sees the improvement, but hopes for more traffic. From the market’s inception four years ago, Cummings and fellow farmer Leslie Williams have brought their produce to the market. The next year, farmer Richard Aman joined them. All three were out there Wednesday, just as they have been in weeks and years past.
“It’s going real slow, but it has improved since the beginning,” Marshall said. “It’s a slow, but gradual improvement.”
The city-coordinated market venture transitioned into a vendor-managed one this year, with local resident Emily Mason leading the charge. And she has sought to get everyone involved, from those who farm, craft and bake goodies to local musicians and others looking for exposure or community assistance in fundraising efforts.
Many have signed up to be vendors this year, with the busiest days being on Saturday, when many — vendors and visitors alike — do not have to work. It is tough to draw people to the market on the weekdays, Mason said. Farmers said they think it might have to do with the recent heat, but despite the weather they plan to be there nonetheless.
Cummings has grown a little bit of everything on his farm, located on Cummings Lane just off Concord School Road north of Clinton, over the past decade. This week, he is offering zephyr squash, which has a distinctive yellow and green coloring, as well as okra and zucchini. He is planning to have organic bell peppers and Charleston gray watermelon in the near future.
“It’s been slow-going, but we’ll be here,” Cummings noted.
Williams agreed. He grows land off Big Piney Grove Road and currently has cucumbers, yard squash, white potatoes and cabbage. Aman, who grows on a 2-acre stretch of land off West Darden Road, has tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, peppers, squash and okra. Cantaloupes, watermelon and cayenne peppers are not far away, he said.
“Everything is grown out of my garden,” said Aman, “and I have everything you can think of. For Curtis and Leslie, this is their fifth year. This is my fourth year and I’m thinking about going bigger next year.”
That could include expanding his two-acre garden to 5 acres, Aman pointed out.
The market will be open again today (Friday) and Saturday, with all kinds of homemade crafts, homegrown treats, baked goods, honey, eggs, assorted jam and plants, handmade clothes, accessories, soap, wreaths, jewelry and everything else for sale.
And while the offerings have expanded, the namesake farmers and the produce they offer are still at the heart of the effort.
Last year, Marshall received an EBT (electronic benefits transfer) machine as part of a state program to encourage the use of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits at farmers’ markets. The machine allows market customers to use debit, credit and SNAP benefits cards to purchase items, a feature aimed at making the market accessible to a wider audience.
“There’s a whole lot of people that don’t know about that and they need to know,” Marshall noted, saying there were huge benefits to utilizing the EBT machine. “All purchases through that are a minimum of 20 percent off.”
The farmers hope to see traffic around the market grow in the summer months to come.
“It’s a slow process,” Williams conceded. “You have to take the good days with the bad and hope it gets better.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.