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Jo Ann Harper returned to her roots.
Born and raised “in the country,” Harper’s family farmed and lived off the land.
Harper, a downtown Conover merchant and member of the merchant association, was one of three people instrumental in forming the Conover Farmers Market.
“We were brainstorming about ways to revitalize downtown Conover, and I asked the merchant’s association if they ever thought about having a farmer’s market,” Harper said.
Harper, along with Melinda Herzog and Ira Cline took the idea, turned it into a vision and ran with it.
The city of Conover agreed to support the farmers market for three years. Herzog, executive director of the Catawba County Historical Association, researched the business, legal and grant process with advice from Cline, a well known strawberry farmer and Harper.
Their vision was simple: they wanted a place to buy goods grown and produced locally, direct from the growers.
In its first year, the market had 14 vendors. In 2010, there were 18, and this year there are 32 vendors.
The growth in the number of vendors is exciting, particularly with the new location of the market in the parking lot of the Conover Post Office. There’s room for 35 vendors, but there’s also another reason for the move. The parking lot is next to land that can be available for even more future growth of the market.
“The deciding factor to move was to be closer to one of our long term goals of having a permanent shelter,” Harper said. “Now we have room to grow.”
Harper, Cline and Herzog — and now the board of directors for the Conover Farmers Market — envision a way to reach out to the community to educate the importance of eating healthy and the importance of local farming.
“We realize we need to reach children, and we need to educate on the importance of eating healthy,” Harper said. “Last year, Julie Lehman, our market manager, made six visits to area schools.”
Now local farmers visit schools to talk about farming and eating fresh foods. They also share their knowledge of growing, pest management, time management, sales and marketing to reconnect youth to their farming community.
“The farmers market is really positive for the community in every respect,” Harper said. “It’s a win/win for the community, farmers, downtown Conover and it fosters healthy eating habits.
“We’ve got a good thing, but we need the support of the community,” she added.
By the end of this season, the Conover Farmers Market’s goal is to be self-sustaining. At the end of the city of Conover’s support, the market seems ready to “leave the nest” and fly on its own.
“We look to the community for help through our Friends of the Market campaign,” Harper said. “Anything anyone can give is appreciated.”
Harper believed in the Conover Farmers Market from its beginning in 2009 and appreciates the support from the city of Conover, community, farmers and vendors.
“We wanted to be self-sufficient,” Harper said. “I believed in the Conover Farmers Market from the start.”
Big Oak Farms
Dawn and Mike Smith own Big Oak Farm in Kannapolis, with a sales office in Denver. This makes the third year at Conover Farmers Market, along with the Denver and Davidson markets.
The 66-acre Big Oak Farm has been in the family for 100 years and is a certified N.C. Century Farm. The Smiths lease an additional 140 acres. They own 80 head of cattle.
“Our beef is all natural beef — born and raised on our farm,” Dawn said. “We cross Charolais and Angus to give the best in tenderness and marbling in steak and roast cuts, and at the same time producing lean ground beef.”
The Smiths guarantee that their beef contains no antibiotics, growth stimulants or hormones since they are born and raised on Big Oak Farm.
In other words, beef cattle spend their entire lives on Big Oak Farm.
“Our beef is always a product of our farm, and we have a careful selection process before being considered for beef processing,” Mike said. “We raised our beef on abundant green grass and mom’s milk. Four weeks prior to processing, we introduce them to a free choice combination of a feed mixture we have specially blended for them that contains all natural ingredients and that produces a consistent flavor and tenderness.”
The Smiths are excited about the expansion of the Conover Farmers Market, which has been a good venue for selling their beef.
“The most refreshing thing is the support from the community,” Mike said. “It’s a win/win situation.”
People ask the Smiths how their product compares to grocery store beef.
“We tell them to look and see the difference,” Mike said. “Each year, we convert at least a dozen vegetarians with our beef.
“You are what you eat is so true, and people are really paying attention to that,” he added. “We now eat healthy.”
Big Oak Farm supplies beef to the cafeteria at Davidson College. Mike said food inspection and guidelines mandate that beef be cooked to 165 degrees. With regards to Big Oak beef, the Smiths point out another plus to all natural beef.
“Don’t overcook our beef — don’t be afraid to cook it rare,” he said. “We know what goes in it and what doesn’t go in it.
“The beef you buy today was in our pasture two weeks ago,” he said.
Coto Family Farms
Based in Vale, Coto Family Farms offers a wide variety of vegetables including corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, beets, melons, onions, kale and beans — in season. Owners Karin and Rene Coto also grow herb plants and perennials.
At last week’s Customer Appreciation Day at Conover Hardware, Coto offered containers of butterhead lettuce, romaine, leaf, kale, green and red leaf lettuce for planting, in addition to heirloom tomato plants — Beefsteak, Rutgers and Ace 55.
New offerings of herbs to plant in the garden include epazote and stevia.
“Epazote is the main ingredient in Beano,” Karin said. “Stevia is a natural sweetener.”
As the growing season moves into warmer days, Karin said what they bring to the market increases from week to week.
Diane’s Breads, from Hickory, brings sweet breads, breakfast pastries, scones, cookies, cheese straws, cinnamon rolls, seasonly fresh fruit pies and fresh coffees to Conover Farmers Market.
Owner Diane Hawkins, 55, has baked and cooked since she was 10. She is a consistent winner of blue and red ribbons at area fairs and 4H events.
“When I worked a ‘real job,’ I came home at 5 and baked until 10,” she said. “Baking was my stress reliever.”
Hawkins is known at the market for her Morning Glory Muffins.
“I brought 102 Morning Glory Muffins today (Conover Hardware Customer Appreciation Day) and sold out,” she said. “And, I pre-sold six dozen.”
Hawkins looks forward each season to the farmers market and plans to add special cakes for Easter at opening day April 23.
“I’ll make coconut and carrot cakes,” she said.