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Having lived in Harrisburg since 1987 does not qualify me for native status, but my twenty-plus years here have given me an appreciation of my little town perched on the broad shoulder of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.  Though I have witnessed its population grow exponentially, there is little likelihood that anyone will ever confuse my Harrisburg with the Pennsylvania city of the same name.  However, at one point the boom of newcomers did have me worrying that the town would lose its tenuous link to its rural past.  This fear was quelled in the spring of 2006 with the establishment of an old-fashioned Farmers Market.  In a shady haven by the railroad tracks, barely removed from the busy highway dissecting the town, the people of Harrisburg began to come together to experience an inescapable juxtaposition of Old South and New.

During the Piedmont’s protracted growing season, the Farmers Market presents a weekly opportunity for the community’s newer residents to mingle with local farmers whose families have tilled the land for generations.  With repeated visits, they often become attached to specific vendors, and the farmers in turn depend on the loyalty of their regular buyers.  In conducting commerce at the Farmers Market, all of us help keep farming a viable occupation, continuing a long cycle of agricultural connection across the South.

Visiting the Farmers Market makes me realize that life has spun full circle, with food shopping moving from the original outdoor markets to sanitized grocery stores designed for speed and now back again to tranquil open-air settings.  Parking is on a grassy field instead of a scorching sea of asphalt.  Merchandise lines both sides of a roughly graveled dirt road under a canopy of cool shade trees in place of cart-clogged aisles in an icy air-conditioned store.  Produce is pulled from the back of pickup trucks onto wobbly tables, not stacked on the usual counters under fake thundershowers.  Dollar bills exchange hands, with real people figuring how to make change since there are no cash registers.  Instead of matching shirts with nametags, vendors wear whatever they want, sharing only a smile as their uniform.

But it’s not just the pleasant environment of satisfied buyers and friendly sellers that coaxes me to the outdoor market.  Beneath the cheerful banter of shoppers and farmers, I sense a mysterious undercurrent of messages from the produce itself.  Cucumbers, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, and corn on the cob seem to beckon for customers to buy them.  Jars of prepared foods such as salsa, chowchow, and jellies shine in colorful rows, with a sign pleading, “Come have a sample.”  Bushel baskets of luscious apples and peaches cascade from tables, easily enticing purchase.  Baked goods catch the eye of children, who skip about seeking the most mouth-watering sweets.  Bright fresh flowers, swaying in tall buckets of water, beg to be carried to my kitchen table.  Hand-crafted tote bags, aprons, and seasonal wreaths tempt browsers to examine their clever designs.  To me, it’s a magical bazaar.

As I wander through the marketplace, I find the laid-back atmosphere infectious.  People amble instead of scurry, meander instead of dash.  Whereas standing in line at the grocery store often leads to impatient remarks, waiting customers at the Farmers Market engage in genial chitchat.  The air is filled with a mélange of sound, the sharp tempo of Northern speech swirling with the lilting cadence of the Southern-born.  Here and there my ears perk to the sound of international accents.  Visitors, curious about unfamiliar produce, linger by the displays and show true interest in the merchandise.  Questions are posed with no condescension; answers are given with no derision.  The farmers understand that it is not the old Harrisburg, and newcomers appreciate the jewel they have discovered.

Other treats awaits Harrisburg market visitors before they leave laden with their goods.  Those with small children often take free rides on the miniature train that travels a wide loop around a bucolic pond and through a patch of woods.  Some visitors enjoy taking a peek at the restored post office/store/depot sitting adjacent to the real train tracks.  Vintage rocking chairs on the porch allow shoppers to rest, and perhaps in a few minutes they’ll experience a genuine life-sized train up close and personal.  Inside the refurbished building, gleaming wood floors creak a bit as visitors explore.  An appealing wood stove claims the middle of the main room.  Artwork from local young students and adults, as well, fills shelves and walls.  In the smaller room one can snoop through the old post office boxes stuffed with aged maps, news articles, and recipes from generations before.  Stepping outside, long time residents reminisce about when Harrisburg was a sleepy Southern village not too long ago, and newcomers have formed a bond with the town’s history.

The Farmers Market is not just a trendy alternative spot to buy vegetables.  It’s a bridge to the past, linking the Old South with the New.  It’s an inviting place, one that sparks friendships that overcome differences in customs and cultures.  As I stroll down that sun-dappled lane, I feel lucky to call Harrisburg home.

 

February is a time of testing in North Carolina.  The skies seem to stay dark, like God redecorated and ordered a gun-metal gray theme.  We bundle up and listen to the wind outside shrill against the eaves, and hope there is enough salt pork and flour to see us through to the spring.

Lucky me, I married Louise, Warrior Queen of the North.  My wife has recently become as hot-natured as a boiling cauldron.  Icicles hang from the kitchen cabinets, the dog is frozen in place with one icy paw pointing up towards the thermostat, and she says, “Is it just me or is it hot in here?”  She steps over a penguin to lower the temperature . . . again.  Outside it’s so cold squirrels are throwing themselves on electric fences.

I do not argue with the Queen.  I go outside in 21-degree weather and walk around a bit without a coat, go back inside and feel warmer.  There is cold and there is less cold.  Sometimes you just need perspective.

Luckily I grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina, where you accepted winter the way you accept your looks – with resignation.  Nothing you can do about it, really.

There was no TV weather forecasting for people on the farm, just a sudden sense of doom and old people saying their bones ached while we inventoried the jars of canned beans, corn and okra.  As far as meat, we were good Baptists and believed that God would provide.  A family of 10 would be reduced to a group of 8 by spring and everyone would appear well fed; there were never legal inquiries.

Winter on our hog farm was intense and gave you a shot of determination.  Can you survive?  Yes, but only if you really wanted to.

So with your jaw set you trudge outside to do chores at six in the morning, while the air still has the sharp bite of the cold night and the sun has yet to rise and give you hope.  My job was to take a hammer to the water troughs and break what had frozen overnight so the hogs could drink.  The big swine would stand in the unheated shelters looking at me.  I remember one very gentlemanly Berkshire boar hog, his eyes staring at me, icicles hanging from his snout.  His eyes seem to say, “Kill me now. Please.”  I swung the hammer and hit the trough of ice instead, and you could just see the disappointment on his face.

My father thrived on adversity and winter was his special challenge.  If he could not see your breath while you worked outside then he called the whole thing off until the temperature dropped a bit more.  He would put on long johns, two pairs of pants, a heavy flannel shirt, winter coat, gloves, and a hat, and then go outside to supervise my work.  He would stand bundled up and watch me clean pens, repair broken gates and slats with my hands numb from the cold and say, “Winters just don’t get cold like they used to.”

But today the farm in the new South is different.  The farmhouse has a special room in it called the “office,” complete with filing cabinets, swivel back chairs, desks with “In” and “Out” mail baskets sitting beside computers with wireless internet service.  You can track pig production and the health history of a Yorkshire sow while talking to your friends on Facebook.  Download an MP3 file of “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and you can listen to it while you use software to plan corn crop rotation.  And while you’re at it, check your email and stock portfolio (Yikes! Halliburton dropped 2 points--Sell! Sell! Sell!).  If my father were here today he would sniff and turn his head away in disgust: not enough sweat involved.

Winter on the farm is no longer a test of endurance.  You just crank up a green John Deere tractor the size of a city block, complete with central heat, around-sound stereo and an overhead TV, all strategically placed in a soundproof cab, and you’re good to go.  The dashboard controls look like they belong in a Boeing 747 and there’s enough room in the cab to raise a family of four or build a sauna.  You sally forth into the fields not to break ground as a farmer, oh no – these days you’re a professional agriculturalist ( PA) and you’re about to modify a crop site.

While plowing fields that now lie next to housing developments, you talk with your wife on your Blackberry (blackberries originally grew on bushes; did you know that?) and you  both decide about supper – Bojangles, or call in a pizza?  Pressure cookers for canning tomatoes, okra and corn were long ago donated to poor countries.  Thus cell phones and fast food have now become a farmer’s necessity.  The bumping sound you hear is my father turning over in his grave.

Days of old-fashioned farming, cows with names like Clarabelle, and gentle old mule teams are a thing of the past.  Farms have gone wireless, turned into corporations and embraced the 40-hour work week.  There was a time on the farm when we walked ten miles to school in the snow and 20 miles back, but obesity put a stop to that.

Meanwhile this old farm boy fights bravely to save marriage and soul.  I’m sitting here freezing, trying to write this column while my wife wonders if we should take the quilts off the bed as she fans her face with both hands.  Menopause, like hybrid corn seed, is a mystery I intend to ask God about first thing when I see Him.  But right now I’m thinking about calling a professional agriculturalist and renting his tractor for awhile.  I’ll watch TV, stay warm and eat pizza.

 
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