FLORENCE, S.C. – Change is coming to the Pee Dee State Farmers Market, and that's a good thing.
It's an even better thing that they come as the market plays an integral role in supplying food during the time of COVID-19 and as farmers markets nationwide are transitioning away from the traditional format.
"We got an additional allocation this year from the South Carolina Department of Agriculture to do some improvements," said Bob Sager, the market manager.
That money was used to build a deck outside the main shed on the U.S. 52 end, replace some light panels in the roof and install some 30-foot industrial fans to keep the air moving on hot, humid days, Sager said.
A new digital sign greets visitors as they pull in off of U.S. 52.
"No matter what the message is on the sign, the real message is we're alive and well and in the 21st century," Sager said.
The bathrooms were also cleaned up and modernized.
Segar said the future of farmers markets will be more along the lines of those in Raleigh and Asheville – which are enclosed and offer a wider variety of vendors, a restaurant and a passel of produce purveyors.
Part of what is driving the change toward a more diverse collection of vendors is the falling number of businesses that want to commit long term to selling produce at market, Sager said.
The demographics of who shops at farmers markets isn't changing, and that will be a challenge down the road.
"Part of our mission was to change the demographic. A lot of the customers are the ones who have been coming for years. We don't see a lot of young, family types coming," Sager said. "We're trying to create a more diverse offering and change the demographic."
The Pee Dee State Farmers Market has a jump on several areas and just needs to build around them, Sager said.
"The restaurant is an integral part of it," said Sager of Julia Belle's Restaurant. "I think it's a positive thing that they're here, and they're going to be staying here."
The market currently has several vegetable vendors on site – Lamb's, Southern Produce and Shelly Hickson. Wilson's will be back, he said, and McLeod Farms is there in season.
There are several plant vendors on site, a winery and two statuary vendors.
"I think that's going to be our core and mainstay people as we work to surround them with other types of businesses," Sager said.
The market is also working to pump up its event schedule so that it's not just the spring and fall festivals. At least one event is scheduled every month, with an arts and crafts festival scheduled during the Christmas season and a family-style event for Independence Day.
And, while the virus has so many businesses closed, the market remains open and is the only drive-through market in the area – as in you can drive your car through the middle of the market from one end to the other.
Along the way vendors can shuttle produce to the car and customers can pay from the car.
"What I want to do is build on our track record of success," Sager said. "We can start to show what the potential is by what we've already done. I'm not afraid to ask."