Produce wholesalers at the Raleigh (N.C.) State Farmers Market may be booted from their space when a master plan for redesigning the property and surrounding land comes to fruition.
There are 11 five-year leases held by 10 wholesalers at the market, said David Smith, chief deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which operates the state-owned market.
Smith represents the 20-acre state market in its partnership with city-owned Dorothea Dix Park, which has the Dorothea Dix Park Conservancy to pursue its interests.
The 308-acre park is next to the wholesale buildings, comprising about seven acres in the back of the farmers market property, separated by a chain link fence.
Using money from private individuals and organizations, the conservancy hired Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates to design the master plan. The same landscape architects created Brooklyn Bridge Park — which won the Brenden Gill Prize for an artistic work most embodying the spirit of the City of New York.
In several phases over a span of 10, 20 or 30 years, the firm’s plan includes mixed-use condos, shops, restaurants and pedestrian access between the park and the farmers market.
“The conservancy has always seen the farmers market as an asset to the park because it can be a draw-in card. Our back door is their front door,” Smith said.
The market has a place for small-scale farmers to sell from trucks to small grocers and fruit stands. What they can’t sell, often the wholesalers take. For consumers, there’s a farmers’ market for produce, a restaurant and a market with other food, crafts and North Carolina-made products. There’s also a truckers’ shed for high-volume buyers to drive through and do business.
The wholesaler portion of the market includes a finger of lesser-used property that juts out the back of the entire property. To the left of the finger, there are 125 acres of undeveloped property owned by North Carolina State University, which has been shopping for large corporations to use it for headquarters, Smith said. At one point, the land was offered to Amazon with $2.1 billion in incentives, Smith said, and at another time, it was courting Apple to place a headquarters there. On the right side of the farmers market finger is the park.
“We mean no harm to anyone there, but looking long-term, we have to be prepared for the changes coming down the road. You’d rather have some plan in place, in your back pocket, when the speed of change picks up,” Smith said.
“At some point, if the property on the left-hand side is sold to a large corporation for its headquarters and when the park on right side gets more developed, the dirt in between may have a value that’s worth too much for its current use,” he said.
Smith said he doesn’t know what the state would decide then but having this plan in motion could help the market retain some control of its future.
There is no money allocated for implementing this plan yet, Smith said.
He doesn’t see the inclusion of the wholesalers in the future, as the market becomes more of a destination.
The wholesalers sell to independent grocery stores, big-chain retailers, restaurants, institutions and roadside markets.
Most of the produce in the state’s research triangle area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill is bought at the wholesale terminal, according to the agriculture department.
There are three other state farmers markets in North Carolina that house about one wholesaler each, so the Raleigh market has the biggest wholesaler concentration, said Vaughn Ford, one of the fourth-generation owners of Ford’s Produce Co., a wholesale distributor where his son, niece and nephew also work.
“It’s the only profitable one in the state because we have a partnership among farmers, retailers and wholesalers. Farmers will sell what they can and what they can’t, we can sell,” Vaughn said.
The wholesalers broaden the farmers’ distribution by selling to chain stores and restaurants, which farmers don’t have the resources to do, Ford said. The wholesalers prioritize North Carolina produce when it’s available and source elsewhere when it’s not.
“Without this, you’ll just have a cutesy market, a touristy thing instead of a working industrial market. They’ve basically written us out of the plan, and we’ve got multiple companies here in their third, fourth or fifth generation, and they’re taking us off the map,” Ford said. “We’re the ones who keep the lights on 12 months a year.”
Smith said there has been a little discussion on finding a replacement location for the wholesalers, but implementation of the plan’s phases that affect wholesalers is so far into the future that it’s too soon to pursue that further.
Ford said he’s heard of no alternative location for wholesalers.
“Nobody is explaining why this is happening, because it’s not beneficial to anybody involved in agriculture,” Ford said.
“Ward’s Produce strongly disagrees with the Master Plan expansions as proposed by the Department of Agriculture and funded by The Dix Conservancy. These revisions, while well-intentioned, have the potential to hurt small farmers, disenfranchise thriving local charities and irreparably harm the most profitable wholesale market in North Carolina.
“While proponents of the Master Plan have suggested that the changes won’t have an effect for 20 years, they fail to appreciate that many of these family-owned businesses have been in operation for more than four generations,” her statement said. “So, we think and plan 20 years ahead. We always have. I encourage my fellow Raleigh citizens to think carefully about this move and implore the commission to have a more robust and open-minded conversation with the community before moving any revisions forward.”
Working closely with the city and conservancy as the planning process moves forward on Phase 1, the Master Plan Executive Committee’s next meeting is Oct. 23.
The committee will make recommendations to Raleigh City Council for review, discussion and approval. During the Master Plan process, the committee worked closely with the design team to steer the planning process, and ultimately recommended the final Master Plan to the city council. The council approved the Master Plan on Feb. 19, directing city staff to create an implementation plan for Phase 1.
Ronnie Best, the market’s manager until last April, said he thinks excluding wholesalers in future plans is not a good idea. He’s a past president of the National Association of Produce Market Managers and still serves on the association board, a place he’s been for 18 years, touring almost all the nation’s wholesale markets and terminals.
He’s seen the same conflict occur at markets all over the country, when the city didn’t anticipate the growth rate when choosing locations.
“All of a sudden that land became more valuable and everything attached to it. The developers are licking their chops on everything around that park,” Best said. “The thing about the market, is it’s completely self-supporting. The market has a $1.4 million budget, and wholesalers pay a little more than half that with leases.”
All of the wholesalers are multi-generational family businesses, he said, and they’ll be left out in the cold.
“It’s sad,” Best said. “And I think what they want to make is a frou-frou market.”