Farmer's Produce enters 24th year

1 of 5

Elma Farmer, left, reacts as Alisa Bassa purchases produce Monday at Farmer’s Produce.


Staff Writer

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Elma Farmer of Farmer’s Produce, the large tent-looking setup on Sutters Creek Boulevard, has accepted credit cards as a means of paying for his fruits and vegetables for about four years now.

But he still can’t figure that darn swipe system out.

Legally blind and in his 24th year of produce service — 16 of them in the same location — Farmer prefers the old-fashioned way.

A customer — and there were perhaps two dozen in an hour’s span on a recent hot Monday afternoon — will bring up his or her pickings from one of the 28 farmers he relies on to provide his produce every day.

They’ll place what they have on a scale. Farmer will ask them how much their haul weighs. They’ll tell him — .78 pounds — and he’ll do a little math in his head, then he’ll knock the price down about 15 percent, and the customer will hand him the bills and the change, and — after an offer of a free cantaloupe sample — they’ll be on their way. If they buy something sweet, he’ll say, “Go home and tell your wife you finally found something as sweet as her.”

It’s a routine he’s settled into nicely. Except, of course, when the customer offers to pay with a credit or debit card.

“Do you live near here?” Farmer will ask the few who have plastic and not paper. “Then you take this home and come back to pay me next time.”

Better to just avoid the confusion.

Farmer was born in Rocky Mount but lives in Wilson County. He can’t drive, so everyday during produce selling season someone — it’s a rotating cast of about 15 — will pick him up and drive him to the shaded operation between Target and Chuck E. Cheese’s.

This particular business started 24 years ago, when a friend handed him an overabundance of peaches that he couldn't possibly eat all by himself. Rather than let them go to waste, he pulled over on U.S. 301 and started selling them. That led to a stand on the street, which led to a move to his current spot in 2002.

He opened up for another season this year in mid-April, a few weeks later than what he would have liked and is used to. And even at 80 years old, his work ethic would make a professional athlete seem lackadaisical. Farmer’s Produce is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday through Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. He’s there everyday, and he’s asleep by 8:30 at night and awake by 1 a.m. the next day at the absolute latest.

It’s been a 70-year-old retiree named Wilford Dickens for the past two weeks who has picked up Farmer from his house around 2 a.m. They head off to Raleigh to meet any number of their 28 farmers and are back at the stand by 7 a.m to unload and set up. When it’s time to pack up at 7 p.m., the two stop by a church on South Church Street to drop off the unsold produce for the homeless.

“I used to come through here all the time,” Dickens said. “A friend of mine said Elma needed some help. I don’t know anything about the prices. Mostly what I do is go get the produce for him in Raleigh.”

In September, Farmer goes to Maine, about 45 miles north of Bangor, for a month off with friends. He might open up for an abbreviated schedule in November and December, but in January, February and March, he’s home, “mostly just watching TV,” and keeping in touch with his farmers.

On a good week, he’ll sell about 2,000 pounds of tomatoes, a specialty which he gets trucked up from Florida. They’re kept in air conditioning — not freezers — on the way, and they’re a lot better than the ones at a certain other farmers market in Rocky Mount, he promises.

“An average of 2,000 tomatoes,” he said, “is a lot of tomatoes.”

Farmer is particularly proud of the fact that Farmer’s Produce will soon start accepting EBT cards, a move he’s been trying to do for a while. His hope is for it to become official in early June.

“A lot of people get in binds,” he said. “They have to eat, though. They have to have fresh vegetables just as much as everybody else does. My stuff is fresh. It never goes in no cooler. I try to do what’s right. If they ask me where it comes from, I tell them where it comes from. I hate to say this, but my competitors don’t do that. I think they just started doing that this year.”

He said he does it because he likes to talk to people. That quickly becomes obvious, and for Farmer, there’s no end in sight.

“I enjoy people. I enjoy what I’m doing. When someone walks out of this tent with something they’ll enjoy, that makes my day,” he said. “If I could see, if I was married, I probably would be traveling, having a good time. But I’ll be doing this until the day I die.”