- Associated Press - Saturday, November 7, 2015

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) - The local food movement these days is all the rage. Shoppers seek out locally grown produce and meats for their taste, health benefits and because they like knowing the source of their food. Producers use everything from roadside stands to social media to reach customers.

Long before it was fashionable, some visionaries in Pitt County, including the local agricultural extension director, saw the need to establish a Pitt County Farmers Market. Almost 30 years later, the metal shell building at 4560 County Home Road draws about 100,000 visitors a year, making it the largest farmer’s markets east of Raleigh and one of most recognizable sources for locally grown food,

Retired extension director Leroy James, who was honored by the Pitt County Board of Commissioners on Saturday when they named market in his honor, said last week that the place was born of out the necessity of changing times in the 1970s and 1980s.

The extension service promoted produce production and sales as a way to help small farmers survive as the demand for tobacco - a crop that made many small operations profitable - decreased. Double-digit interest rates and rising land prices also were shutting down smaller farmers.

A group of local growers formed a farmers market association to sell their produce. However, they couldn’t find a permanent home. For several years they gathered in the lot where the Mellow Mushroom restaurant currently sits. Then they moved to a location in downtown Greenville.

“It’s important to have repeat customers, and by us moving around we never established an identity,” said Andy McLawhorn, who founded Renston Garden Market in 1975 and was an early member of the Pitt County Farmer’s Market Association.

The growers had talked to the Board of Commissioners about establishing a permanent market. It was 1982 or 1983 when they approached James about establishing a permanent location.

James went to the Board of Commissioners with the farmers’ request. He thought the best location would be N.C. 11 South near Pitt Community College.

“They didn’t want to turn the (community college) land loose,” James said.

“They replied we have land (on County Home Road) but we don’t have the money to build it.”

Knowing there was land was all James needed. While farmers began setting up an open air market on the grounds, he approached then state Sen. Ed Warren and asked what money was available for a shell building.

Joey Whitehurst, owner of Briley’s Farm Market, remembers his mother and grandmother selling vegetables at the location and farmers setting up stands under the trees.

“I remember running around and playing with children but also helping,”

Whitehurst said. “I would take stuff to the car for people.”

Sen. Warren, who died in 2003, negotiated with the legislative leadership for funds to build. “He said give me three years and I’ll have enough money to build,” James said.

The funds came through and soon the farmers had a roof over their heads.

“In 1986 that was kind of the boondocks, but it’s a popular place now,” said Whitehurst, who still has a stand at the market.

The area around the market is now home to the Pitt County Council on Aging, the Alice F. Keene District Park and Community Schools and Recreation Center, Wintergreen School, a solid waste and recycling convenience site, Pitt County Animal Shelter and the Eastern Carolina Village and Farm Museum.

Initially, some people opposed locating the market on the County Home Road site due to its distance from downtown Greenville, said Mitch Smith, who followed James as the county’s extension director. “Looking back, that decision proved to be a good one for Pitt County residents. It is one of the best markets in the region.”

The shell building helped, said McLawhorn. “Once the building was put up, it lent itself to better and more advertising,” he said.

The market also has benefited from the growing interest in eating locally grown food and supporting local farmers, Whitehurst said. “The market now is more diversified,” he said.

“When it first started it was just vegetables, fruits, but now there is pretty much everything. You’ve got cookies and you got cakes and you got people selling shrimp,” Whitehurst said.

“When we first started it was basic vegetables - tomatoes, potatoes, collards. Now we sell eight or 10 kinds of peppers, five or six kinds of eggplants. Instead of just white corn we have white corn, bicolor corn and yellow corn.”

James said it’s a blessing to see the farmers he worked with and their families benefit from that hard work.

James, 82, is a native of Hertford County, one of 12 children raised by Lawrence and Flossie James.

“They gave me opportunities. I went further than they ever did,” he said.

Raising 12 children was difficult. His parents expected them to work hard and study. There was another important rule to follow.

“We could go anywhere during the week, but Daddy said ‘I want you around this table on Sunday. We are going to have prayer, we are going to have devotion and we are going to talk about your week,” James said.

His father believed in education. “He could see that if you had higher education would you do better in this world,” James said.

He sent James and four of his siblings to college. He once had to borrow money to pay his children’s tuition. He repaid it by spending years supervising a grow that cleared paths through woodlands so utility lines could be built.

Years later James took his father to a conference in Murfreesboro so the older could see his son at work.

“We were driving back, and he said, ‘I made a good investment when I sent you to school,’” James said.

When James graduated from N.C. Agricultural and Technical College he became interested in extension work. He joined the Wayne County Agricultural Extension Office (as cooperative extension was called then) in 1958, working there three years before receiving job offers in Greenville and Charlotte.

Even though Ahoskie is only 60 miles from Greenville, at the time James had never visited the community. He weighed the pros and cons of each move. Friends urged his to take the Charlotte position.

“I grew up on a farm, and Charlotte was a big place for a country boy like me,” he said. He wanted to be close to his family so he would help them when it was needed. James moved to Greenville in 1962. He never looked back.

“We had dual systems, white and black, and I worked with the blacks,”

James said. In 1963, the extension service integrated. Initially farmers were reluctant to work with an agent of the opposite race but their attitudes evolved.

“When they found out we had the same kind of information the whites had they didn’t care,” James said. He served as an agricultural agent from 1963-77 and as director from 1978-1988.

“Those 10 years I was director, I couldn’t ask for a better life,” he said.

The commissioners voted to name the market for him in April after reviewing a citizen request that said the naming would “recognize the rich and unacknowledged history of Pitt County as a reflection of our unity, growth and future potential of become more diverse.”

James put the focus on farming: “I would like people to know I made a difference; working with farmers and leaders and that we made a difference with the farmer’s market,” he said.

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Information from: The Daily Reflector, https://www.reflector.com


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