Season Opening of Onslow County Farmers' Market

by Nicole Sanchez

All across eastern NC, seasonal farmers’ markets are waking up for the season. I just left the grand opening of the Onslow County Farmer’s Market, where the heavy traffic so early on a cloudy, windy, cool April morning was impressive. Vendors were conducting a brisk business in fresh produce, baked goods, snacks, garden and bedding plants, goat’s milk cheese and beauty products, and locally raised meats.  There was even live flounder, part of an aquaculture project geared towards helping local producers gain access to new technologies in raising seafood.

There was an abundance of strawberries, which are apparently rather early this season, and many types of greens as is typical for the cooler months. I chose a healthy bag of mixed baby greens for $3 and a head of leaf lettuce for $1. Fresh spinach at $2.50 a pound was reasonably priced, so spinach and collards rounded out my greens purchases. Spreadable goat cheese made in Wayne County was a special treat. I saw onions, Asian vegetables, and radishes for sale, as well as local honey. Non-food items included several types of soaps, jewelry, and sewn items.

I was impressed in particular by one grower, whom I met for the first time. Rhonda works a full time job during the week, and participates in the Onslow Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. Her selection of greens was incredible: several types of mustard and turnip greens, collards, mixed lettuces, and I think pok choi as well. It all looked so beautiful! I left the market at 10am, but I’m willing to bet she sold out of most of her beautiful produce long before the market closed at 1:30.

My only reservation about the whole experience was the number of people taking home greenhouse raised tomato plants. I, too, have spring fever and am itching to get those plants in the ground. But the truth of the matter is, it’s just not time yet! Tomatoes do NOT like to be cold! Do all these well-meaning, tomato-loving people realize this?

Several of the growers I work with as an extension agent offer plants for sale, though my main focus is producers of fruits and vegetables for consumption. Without exception, those who offer vegetable plants have been commenting recently about being pressured for their tomato plants. An experienced and dedicated consumer can coddle an early tomato plant, keeping it warm at night if planted outdoors, or providing an alternative light source if it’s being kept in the warm indoors. But even with special treatment, the growth of these plants can be stunted by cool night temperatures and cool soil, often to the extent that a plant set out much later will outperform the earlier transplant.

So why do local providers have their tomato plants out already? Partly to service the dedicated few willing to invest now in a plant’s comfort for early tomatoes later. But mostly because Lowe’s and Walmart do! The local guy can either play ball or lose the sale.  He cares a lot more about your success with your plant, but he may not have the time to give you suggestions about care for it amid the hustle and bustle of a busy farmers’ market.  In many cases, both the local grower and the big box store will have to sell a second plant later in the season, when the early one fails.

Hopefully, the novice tomato grower will not be disheartened by their lack of success. Understanding the seasonality of both vegetable plants and the foods they produce is key to successful gardening and to understanding the local foods market.

But seasonality is a story for another blog. For now, let ‘s enjoy the season of spring and the bounty of fresh new produce it heralds. This bounty was clearly evident at the opening of the Onslow County Farmer’s Market.