For Ronnie Best, Farmer’s Market Manager, the time has come to take a break.
Best will start that break Sunday, when he officially retires after 19 years as market manager. Best has worked at the market for 21 years, starting as marketing specialist, and has been with the state of North Carolina for 32 years.
In that time, he has seen the market explode in popularity.
“One thing that I kind of hang my hat on is that we were somewhere around 1.2 to 1.5 million visitors when I first took over,” he said. “We got it built up to around 3.8 million about four or five years ago. It’s kind of leveled off at around 3 million, 3.2 million, but when we were at 3.8 million you couldn’t move on the market, it was so many people.”
Over time, the kinds of activities going on at the market have shifted as well. When Best began work at the market, farmers would frequently bring corn in to shuck and butter beans and peas to shell. That rarely happens anymore, he said, as farmers are preparing their products elsewhere before bringing them to market.
That has coincided with broader changes in the farming industry, Best said. Through all of that, it has been encouraging see farm families stay strong.
“I’ve seen the family farm evolve here where, when I first started, mom and dad were the main growers with grandma and grandpa overseeing it, and then their kids went to college. And when their kids went to college they said ‘I’m out of the farm, I’m not ever coming back, you won’t ever see me back here again.’ I’d see them on the market all the time. They’d be gone for a couple of years, take another job, and it wouldn’t be long before they would come back to the farm. That was nice to see.”
The farmers market serves as a crucial incubator for prospective new farmers who do not have equipment and connections built up from generations of farming.
“When families are farming and have been farming generation after generation, they have the land, they have the tractors, they have the equipment,” Best said. “It’s really hard for somebody to begin farming.”
With over three decades of service to the state and two of those spent at the market, Best was bound to have picked up a few stories along the way. In fact, he’s heard too many to remember, he said, and wishes he’d spent more time writing them down along the way.
He did have one story to share; a tale of three pumpkin farmers.
“I had three different farmers take me to the same pumpkin field to show me they were growing. Now the pumpkin field was up in the mountains so I didn’t know my way around, and they brought me to the field from different directions and it was a huge field,” he said. “So they all showed me ‘their’ pumpkin field, but it was three different farmers and they all claimed that pumpkin field.”
Best is looking forward to some well-earned time off. He plans to spend more time fishing and playing golf, as well as helping take care of his grandchildren – a two-year-old and six-week-old twins. He said that he will not miss worrying about everything from plumbing to lawn care to round-the-clock staffing, but that he looks back on his time as manager fondly.
“All of that stuff, it’s been good, I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “But it’s time to move on.”