Originally created 08/24/02

Farmers markets are growing empty



GREENWOOD, S.C. - Twenty years ago, the exhibition hall that houses the Greenwood Farmers Market was full of growers and customers exchanging the freshest produce around.

But on a recent weekday, only about a half-dozen vendors were on hand, leaving almost a football field of space empty. Some of the sellers brought books and settled in for the long wait between customers.

"People don't want to come out here and buy produce," said a frustrated Perry McDonald, who has been bringing his tomatoes, okra and other vegetables for two decades.

"If it doesn't come out of a can, and you can't put it in the microwave, people don't want it."

Across South Carolina and other parts of the South, farmers markets are slumping as people increasingly buy their produce at the grocery store or from roadside stands, and more restaurants negotiate for fruits and vegetables from farmers directly.

"There are just fewer vegetable farmers, and a lot of them are selling their crop on their own instead of going to a farmers market," said Becky Walton, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Agriculture Department.

Nationwide, the U.S. Agriculture Department reports the number of farmers markets has increased 63 percent from 1994 and 2000, to more than 2,800 markets.

But the sheer number of markets may not tell the whole story.

WHILE THERE ARE still 34 farmers markets in South Carolina, Ms. Walton said their volume has been decreasing steadily.

Georgia's Agriculture Department also said its number of farmers markets has held steady at nine in recent years, but the business conducted at them has dropped.

Dick Perdue has been following the trend - and profiting from it - at his fruit and vegetable stand along South Carolina's Highway 11, otherwise known as the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway.

He said sales of his apples, blackberries, nectarines, cider and preserves have increased 25 percent to 35 percent a year.

"I have people who make it a point to stop by here on their way to their homes in the mountains," Mr. Perdue said. "What they buy in the supermarket isn't good quality. Nowadays they pick stuff green so it will have a long shelf life."

Individual farmers might choose to sell their crops at roadside stands, but farmers markets are popular with buyers such as restaurants and grocery stores who want to buy large amounts of produce, said Clemson University agricultural economics professor Jim Rathwell. "It's a different market completely."

In many places, Mr. McDonald said, customers prefer locations such as weekend flea markets, where vendors do a bustling business. Most of them don't grow the vegetables themselves, instead they buy from farmers who don't have time to spend at the market.

"This is a time-consuming business," Mr. McDonald said. "You don't get vacation, and you don't get a 401k" retirement plan.

HAROLD HARTZOG HAS SOLD tomatoes and other vegetables out of his Cadillac since he retired 13 years ago. He farmed his family's land near Greenwood before he left home in the 1940s and decided to keep the tradition when he returned.

He said the lack of competition at the farmers market isn't that unusual.

"It's a lot of work. You don't make but like $2 an hour for what you put into it," Mr. Hartzog said. "You better do it for enjoyment, because you sure aren't going to make any money."

At 88, Mr. Hartzog is the oldest farmer at the market, but most of the other sellers aren't far behind. Mr. McDonald is 71 and doesn't know how much longer he can work.

"It's sad," Mr. McDonald said. "I don't know who is going to do this once all us old fools get out."