By Kimberly Toms
The quaint family farm of yesterday, one of growing to sell for self-support, is a heritage very recently on the rebound yet still teetering on extinction. Equally endangered is the experience of shopping at small farm markets, a tradition many hold fast to in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
With the average American farmer being age 57 or older and younger generations opting for urban careers over continuation of their parents’ occupation, family farms are indeed less common than generations past.
Worse yet, only three percent of farmland in the United States is used to grow fruits and vegetables for direct consumption at dinner tables. Most such land is planted with commodity crops such as soybeans, corn and wheat. Those crops occupy over 70 percent of fertile farmlands.
Farm Market Haven
En route to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, family farms and their farm markets are quick stops as part of multi-generational tradition of summering on barrier islands. Here, such produce stands pepper the map and are also fully integrated into daily life of seaside residents. Locals just know not to visit the markets on weekends, when visitors flood grounds, parking lots, markets and cash registers.
On any given Saturday during market season, families pull over to stretch their legs. Children run about and explore grounds around each market, shaking off road-weariness and amping up for their pending arrival at the beach. Parents and grandparents select watermelon, cantaloupe, plums, peaches, corn cobs and green beans.
As summer heat stifles, the juiciest of fruits seem to beckon most to beachgoers as standard fare for their weekend or rental week in the sun. Nothing beats melon after a day in the sun.
There are a multitude of farm markets dotting the landscape to and from the Outer Banks as well as on the islands. Some are pickup trucks with signage scrawled on cardboard scraps. Others are grand, pristine open-air buildings offering everything from bananas to sparkling cider and seafood.
Individual Farm Market Favorites
For locals and second- and third-generation beachgoers, one or more markets are considered the family favorite. Many people headed south to the Outer Banks claim their favorite is the slightly weathered but amply stocked Powell’s Family Market just south of Moyock, North Carolina on Highway 168. This stand is the first North Carolina Outer Banks market of several passed by vacationers coming from Virginia and all points north.
What I did not know when I first went to Powell’s is that multiple generations of tourists have stopped here for decades, both coming and going to area beaches. Parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are familiar with this local engine-that-could of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables. They have been bringing their families here since Powell’s very beginnings.
Once you hit Powell’s parking lot, you see this tradition. You can tell many of the throngs of visitors have been here before, to this little collective of rust red buildings. People park swiftly, dart in and aim straight for their favorite items. Familiar faces come and go, each believing Powell’s will be here when they come back again next year.
But are we so sure that such family farm markets will actually be here again next year? This is something to ponder as you drive past. Perhaps a farm market is not something to be taken for granted.
Fleeting Farm Heritage
As smaller family farms and their owners mature in years, many markets shutter and sell melon no more. It is inevitable that most of these little stops en route to vacation will not be here for our children’s children. Sure, some new markets will pop up as part of a fledgling trend of fruit and vegetable farming. But most will be gone, faded away into the abyss filled by produce sourced from other countries as new farms do not counterbalance those aged away.
Realizing this, I remember a childhood memory of visiting C.A. Rodgers’ store in my mother’s home town of Plain Dealing, Louisiana. We would walk there each summer, likely a mile or more in the swelteringly humid Louisiana Red River Bottoms’ heat.
Past the swaying cotton fields of my youth, red dirt dusting up onto our legs and hemlines of our little sundresses, we walked with one objective in mind. It was that Mr. Rodgers’ ramshackle, whitewashed general store had a 1940’s Westinghouse Master Model Coca-Cola Cooler on its porch. Nothing ever, ever tasted better than a green glass-bottled Coke from that cooler. I actually tear up now, just thinking of the reward of such a small thing and how much value that 20-cent Coke held for me.
I recently went back there, looking for Mr. Rodgers’ store. It is long gone. It is so long gone that I struggled to find its former location. Of course, the family cotton is gone and even my grandmother’s house is no more.
This all happened in a flash. A literal flash. I graduated from high school and the house was there. Mr. Rodgers’ store still stood despite being closed years before.
It is beyond time for my children to share such a small but important moment as a cold Coke from a vintage cooler with family lands all around, but there is no cooler. There are no lands. My children know nothing of cotton swaying in an evening breeze. They do not know how wonderful freshly turned river bottom soil smells on damp evening air.
This is how it happens. In that flash and without warning, family farms are no more. Next thing you know, there are newer style homes constructed all around and the “family reunion tire swing oak tree” is not regarded with the importance it is due.
Maybe this is what Powell’s represents to beachgoers, strangers and passers-by. Powell’s is a stronghold in local family markets. The family behind Powell’s holds equally strong, even though they know there are easier, less exhausting ways to make a living.
I sense their plight, the everyday struggle of incredibly hard work as cookie-cutter homes pop up throughout their community, in heavily advertised subdivisions. All around, entire acres of North Carolina old growth forests are being cleared to make way for development. And there Powell’s sits, holding tight, one melon at a time.
I had the opportunity to talk with Eddie Jo, the matriarch of the small Powell family of three. It was her husband William Powell who started the market around 1978. William played football for North Carolina State University and spent summers selling produce, such as his own corn, from the back of his pickup truck. He expanded it little by little, crop by crop, then diversifying into selling other local produce from farmers without their own markets.
Born into an enduring farming family of the area, William’s agricultural roots date back to the 17th century. This family is now in its sixth generation of Currituck County farming, at the hands of son Paxton, now 15.
Eddie Jo is not sure that her son will follow in his parents’ farming and market footsteps. She knows the next generation is key to continuance of local farms, but they are letting him make his own choice about his future.
She said, “I can think of 25 to 30 area farmers who are aging out of the fields now. This economy is hard for what we do. We don’t want to see anyone go out of business, including ourselves. Paxton has the opportunity to continue what we’ve done. He just has to choose.”
While she sounds relaxed about the future and unpressured by her son’s choice, tenacity served the family well following Hurricane Irene, as it did many local farmers and farm market owners who were almost wiped out along with area structures.
“Hurricane Irene was hard,” Mrs. Powell remembers. “We hit a brick wall that year, financially and otherwise. But, there is something about hitting a brick wall that teaches you that you have to change with the times.”
She continues, reflecting logically on their prior lack of understanding regarding their place within the local market. “We weren’t paying attention, before Irene. Times had changed and chain stores had opened all around us. But, we were still ordering the same items we carried before those stores existed.”
As Eddie Jo says this, she nods over toward beach toys and other items now offered at the local family-oriented dollar and hardware stores. I was impressed with her humility in this. Ego can be the big killer of a business and clearly ego was put aside after Irene. Irene was, to the Powells, a sort of dose of lemons which they then used to recraft their lemonade.
Unique Positioning in a Competitive and Changing Marketplace
I talked to Eddie Jo about the local farm market culture and how it caters to tourists of Outer Banks beaches.
“All of the markets have something uniquely different to offer,” she explained. “We are 95% produce. Others have other things they offer. We don’t want to see them go out of business, any more than we want to go out of business, ourselves.”
I can tell that Eddie Jo is sincere in her desire to hold a niche without fighting against her neighbors for it, just as she holds no negativity regarding their success within their own niche. Her nearest neighbors are bigger, splashier, flashier with side attractions and bells and whistles.
While I love bells and whistles, there is something about Powell’s which endears me. It is a calling home, to a more authentic experience of my own roots. This is not to say other markets are not authentic, by any means. They just are, as Eddie Jo also believes, a different type of operation.
Growing for and Selling to Modern Consumers
Eddie Jo has a lot on her plate. The family’s farm does not seem to be producing as much for the market anymore, as most of the fruits and vegetables carried are from other growers. But one can tell that market requirements, staff and all else associated with survival as a merchant family is taxing to her and those she loves.
You can tell that Eddie Jo is tenacious in this stress, however. She seems to be the type of person who accepts the cycle of hard work and gets up each morning mindful of the need to “push onward,” just as my farming relatives were in their cotton lifestyle. I sense this, see it, smell it and in the vegetables and fruits I buy at Powell’s, I taste it.
This is the fight to continue as things are, to hold fast to what has worked for many years, in a world of sometimes confrontational and unforgiving technology. The Powells are traditionalists. The rest of the world is jetting forward all around them while they hold onto their proverbial roots. This is the very essence of the plight of today’s family farmer.
The Powells sell their own produce mixed with as much locally-sourced food as they can. The rest comes from South Carolina in the back of William’s own truck. Most of that gap filled through non-local produce is of tropical fruits, such as bananas. Admittedly, other items are not local here, which may or may not be locally sourced in other stands.
Eddie Jo is also well aware of how difficult it has been to staff the market, particularly during the beautiful high season on area beaches.
“We hire mostly teenagers on summer break. Both William and I have education degrees and I used to teach at the high school,” Eddie Jo explains. She continues, “We are lucky to have great employees who understand our farm economy and that we cannot give them raises as we would like.”
There exists an almost desperate grip on the farm market’s future, a desire to keep it from succumbing to the pressures of shinier neighbors.
This is the desperation I am sure Mr. Rodgers of Louisiana likely felt, in keeping his store open even as long as he did. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s there, a 1940’s Coke cooler was likely not sufficient for those seeking plastic two liters and wider selections. It was the tradition of walking to the store as my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother did, which held onto me as a customer and made the experience so special. We found it special while most others drove up and down the hilly two lane highway to a grocery store.
In fact, those walks to the market were some of the few memories I have of my maternal great-grandmother. A child-like spirit, Mama Kitty always astounded me on these walks. She kept up with us, each of the children wearing flip flops and shorts in the sweltering summer heat. She stepped gingerly along in her 1940’s dresses and oxford pumps, an outfit completed by stockings and the ever present brooch, handkerchief in hand. I remember her dress swaying in the breeze, just as the cotton did.
From the crowds which flock into the market each sunny beach weekend, I have to glean that the same type of multi-generational experience, memories and history are what many customers of Powell’s seek. Otherwise, those customers would simply stop at Food Lion mere moments ahead.
Ebbs and Flows of Tradition
Market struggles are the life lessons business owners go through. It is where better businesses improve and overcome, becoming once again revered. Right now for the Powells, with their more modern and aesthetically appealing neighbors so close by, is sort of like that time period following Hurricane Irene with its “lessons learned” about adjusting to the market.
In saying all of this, there is great hope that those families who have been visiting Powell’s for generation after generation remember why they have done so. Each of those families are important to this little piece of American farming. This little piece, like all of the other little pieces out there working to hold fast to farming heritage, might need an occasional break from loyalists. This is true, just as it is true that such a business must fully appreciate each customer opting to shop in open air instead of air conditioned convenience among heavily stocked rows of shelves.
Powell Farming Heritage
As we wrapped up our in-market conversation, I jumped into Eddie Jo’s car and she drove me out to the family farm. The Powells have been on this plot of 400 acres since it was a larger plot, a farm of sweet potatoes, cattle grain and well over 4000 hogs.
Although the family has turned soil since the 1600s in this area, the remaining farm cemetery has headstones dating to 1847. It was 1856 when a patriarch named James Cowell died at the age of 80 years. His wife Elizabeth followed just four years thereafter, also at age eighty. The Cowell family continued here until one of its daughters, Millie, married a Powell. It appears from the headstones that this change of one letter in the last name occurred sometime around World War II.
William, the now-patriarch of the land, decided that owning 4000 hogs is too confining. Not much can be debated about that logic. A solo farmer committed to over 4000 hogs would be a farmer who would never have a personal life or a break to just breathe freely of the constant pressure of so many mouths to feed. Running such a hog farm is likely better explored as a large family existence, or a corporate entity.
Still, the original hog barn remains on one corner of the property.
William started the farm market with a small variety of vegetables. Eddie Jo explained that over the years he has grown tomatoes, squash, strawberries and pumpkins on the family land. Soybeans, collard greens and pumpkins are a current focus, as well as asparagus. The Powells are discussing a possible strawberry crop for pick-your-own ripeness.
Other area farmers provide Powell’s with sweet corn, sweet potatoes and the much revered Rocky Hock cantaloupes. Rocky Hock is widely known along the Outer Banks as the land of sweet, sweet melons.
Walking and driving around the Powells’ land, exploring the cemetery and gazing across fields, you can feel a sort of family presence in the land and air. This is rare, today. There are many silent stories on this farm which has endured through the most significant wars of American history, as the Cowells became the Powells and a little red market raised up from the side of a highway to sell fruits and vegetables.
Perhaps this heritage is more important than most people today realize. Many of us who have lost our farm heritage forever may be more sensitive to it.
One thing is clear, however. That is, farm families hold fast and tightly to the past with great hope for an enduring future. Perhaps this is what enticed William’s father, 80 years old at the time, to board the family’s tractor and go back to work in the sun, so William could be present for his baby Paxton’s birth.
Whatever the motivation that day was for William’s father, one thing is certain. That is, there is no heritage more important to this country than bountiful and responsible use of its land toward the prosperity of its people. Farm markets are family farmers’ last grasp on that connection between their occupation and their very reason for pursuing it.
We are their reason for pursuing their chosen field of work, those of us who enjoy a fresh fruit or crisp vegetable just pulled from the earth. As you drive through from New Jersey, New York or Pennsylvania to the Outer Banks, do not forget your role in family farming. Each of us plays a part in the future of this important heritage of the seaside economy, in the food chain derived from American soil.