Hankering for homegrown

Janice Hamright, left, and Gail Hamright of Rock Hill select squash at the Rock Hill Farmer's Market on Friday.
Janice Hamright, left, and Gail Hamright of Rock Hill select squash at the Rock Hill Farmer's Market on Friday.

This time of year, Estelle White doesn't look to a grocery store for her summer produce. She looks to local growers, who plant, tend, harvest and market the crop themselves.

"I like the good bargains you get," said White, who has been shopping at the York County Farmer's Market in Rock Hill for a decade. "And you see what you get is fresh."

Last week, White came to the market in the city parking lot at Black Street and Elizabeth Lane hunting for a sweet, juicy watermelon and some fresh tomatoes and green peppers to make chow chow. She didn't go away empty-handed.

Similar markets in Chester and York are perennial summer favorites for local folks who come for the company as much as for the sweet corn and juicy tomatoes.

This year, vendors said the markets have an added attraction: A nationwide salmonella scare in the tomato crop and sky-high grocery prices have sent buyers scrambling for alternatives.

"The concern about tomatoes is real," said Joe Laurendeau, 66, who cultivates five acres of produce outside Rock Hill. "But they know there's nothing wrong with ours. They trust us."

Laurendeau was among several vendors who were hawking their crops shortly after sunup Friday at the Rock Hill market. They expect to be joined by other growers as sweet corn, late summer tomatoes and other crops come in.

A fellow grower, Tom Hays, 42, tends corn, squash, cucumbers, peppers, cantaloupe, green beans and butter beans on about 4 acres south of Rock Hill.

"Last week, I picked 400 pounds of tomatoes, and they were gone in one day," he said. "People love the homegrown tomatoes. That's the No. 1 thing. We can't keep a tomato right now. As soon as we pick them, they're sold."

Hays sells regular tomatoes, which are just beginning to come in, at $1.75 a pound, or $2 a pound for cherry tomatoes, compared to as much as $4 at a grocery store.

"There's no way I'd pay $4 a pound for tomatoes," Hays said. "This is local, it's cheaper, and it tastes better."

The downtown farmer's market in York, which opened in April and is newly organized this year, features a broader array of locally produced items, from produce to crafts and honey.

"Originally, there were a lot of homemade items, home-grown or handmade," said the market's organizer, Signa Curry. "Now that the produce is starting to come in, it's a real combination of a lot of different things."

They include local honey, homemade soaps, free-range eggs, some crafts and a lot of herbs, she said. "So many gardeners have told me, 'As soon as our gardens are in, we will be there.'"

In the right place, such markets can be a thriving hub for the community, said Curry, who is focusing on growing and expanding the market.

"It's a popular thing over the last couple of years with the market to feature some extra things, because of the cottage industry, people are making things from home," she said.

Some examples at the York market include organic pet food, homespun knitted purses and hats and gourmet spices and teas. "It's the community's market," she said.