A Gracious Plenty

We visited one of the longest standing fresh-air markets in the South.
Sara Askew Jones

Rush hour in Boone looks a little different every Saturday morning from May through October. Blame it on area farmers who spread a fine bounty at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market. Eager customers clamor for the fresh goods and often arrive before the market officially opens to snag favorite items.

“We open at 8 a.m., but I sell quite a bit before 7:30,” says Jeff Thomas, one of the vendors and president of the market’s association. “We have tried to work on our inventory so that those who come later will find something.”

Location, Location, Location
The market takes place at the Horn in the West where the outdoor drama of the same name is held (June 20-August 16). This location is a win-win situation for farmers and consumers. “It’s sort of out of the way,” says Jeff, “but that’s a good thing. It is a green area, and the town owns it; so it will probably never be developed.”

For the vendors the spacious facility allows plenty of room to display their fresh produce, tasty treats, and just-cut flowers among other tempting items. Awhile back, the Watauga County Market group built sheds that accommodate 36 vendors. “The rest of the folks sit out in the open or under a tarp,” Jeff says. “Your space is limited under the shed, but you don’t get rained on.” That’s an important point, because the market’s a rain-or-shine operation. Great parking keeps customers happy, and their numbers can swell to 3,000 during a busy month.

From June to September, the group offers a Wednesday market for those wanting a midweek fix of freshness. “That one is a totally different market,” Jeff says. “It’s slow and small. We probably have only 15 vendors that day.”

Close to Home
Even though food trends have changed since it opened in 1974, the market has remained loyal to its mission to support area farming. This undertaking promotes awareness for rural landscape preservation and good use of the land.

“Organic was the big catchword,” Jeff says. “Now people are wanting local and will pick local over California organic.”

Buying at the market also puts a face with the produce. “People want more than vegetables; they want a connection to the farmer,” he adds. Most regular vendors are full-time farmers whose income depends on Saturday sales. They set up in the same space year after year.

“A long time ago it was first come, first served,” says Jeff. “If you didn’t come at the crack of dawn and get your same space, customers would come and think you weren’t there. We started assigning spots.”

The market runs like a business with five board members and four officers. “We charge a $50.00 membership fee, and then each vendor pays a weekly fee when coming to market,” says Jeff.

Stay a Little Longer
The market is more than good eats and beautiful blossoms. It’s a trendy scene where people hang out and meet their friends. “We really have worked on making it a social event,” says Jeff. “We have a band once a month―bluegrass, alternative, and old-time music. We encourage people to hang around.”

Tourists and locals alike take advantage of this Saturday morning invitation. “Most of us work by ourselves for 14 hours a day, 6 days a week,” Jeff explains. “It is so nice to hear somebody say, ‘You’ve got the best tasting squash of anybody I know.’ I like the customer feedback and how appreciative they are.”

For the market’s schedule and a list of produce and crafts, visit www.wataugacountyfarmersmarket.org.

"A Gracious Plenty" is from the July 2008 issue of North Carolina Living: People & Places, a special section of Southern Living for our subscribers in North Carolina.