Raleigh’s Moore Square Park was once a peaceful spot to eat a picnic lunch during the workweek. Now on Wednesdays between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. it’s bustling with toddlers sporting plastic sunglasses, lawyers draped in elegant suits and city employees searching for the perfect tomato. They are here to see what’s for sale at the Triangle’s newest venue to feature local farmers and their beautiful bounty of produce: the Moore Square Farmers’ Market.

Set under the grand oaks that line Blount Street close to City Market, the Moore Square market opened with nine vendors on July 12. They stood in the shade or under white tents selling corn, potatoes, pale green peppers and tomatoes while customers strolled by looking for something they could eat at the office or take home for dinner.

The market may have started small, but organizers have big plans for the rest of the summer. Each week through the end of September, the market will offer seasonally fresh produce, chicken, eggs, beef, fresh flowers, ice cream, cheese and bread. Chef demos, composting classes, even children’s activities will be added as soon as they can be arranged.

The Moore Square market is sponsored by the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, which aims to provide it as an amenity for the 31,000 people living and working downtown. Across the country, farmers’ markets are drawing people of all ages and incomes into the heart of cities where they can walk the streets and patronize businesses.

“When you have five farmers with their trucks, you see a market, but it’s really so much more than that,” says David Feehan, president of the International Downtown Association. “It’s a meeting place for the whole community.”

Many people, Feehan included, believe these markets can be a solution to the country’s health and energy problems. The food is often grown without pesticides, so it’s healthier, plus it’s grown locally, which cuts down on the energy required to refrigerate and transport it. “Markets also connect rural and urban communities,” Feehan adds.

Sherri Harris hopes the Moore Square Farmers’ Market will inspire Raleigh citizens to get to know local farmers and their products. Thin with cropped brown hair and a shy smile, Harris will manage the market as a volunteer for the 2006 season. “I want people to know that an heirloom tomato is a non-hybrid variety produced for superior taste, not shelf life or appearance,” she says. “I’d like for people to talk with farmers about the taste differences between a Cherokee Purple, a Brandywine or a Georgia Stripe tomato. And tomatoes are just the beginning! Talking with farmers and food artisans leads people to see how they support the farming tradition and way of life in North Carolina.”

When she isn’t recruiting farmers or working at the N.C. Botanical Garden, Harris waits tables at Raleigh’s Enoteca Vin, where she first began talking with fellow employee Julie Young about Raleigh’s need for a farmers’ market specializing in local produce.

Young and Harris wanted to support local agriculture and be able to talk with farmers about their products, to ask if the produce was grown organically, what the different varieties of heirloom corn tasted like, and if the meat was hormone-free. They knew they could find this experience in Durham and Carrboro, but they wanted to have it in Raleigh.

A small market operates some Wednesday evenings on Hillsborough Street, but with only a few vendors, the produce selection is limited. And the state farmers’ market does not require vendors to grow or produce the products they sell, so answers to questions like the ones above can be hard to find.

Just as they began working with three other women–public relations consultant Jennifer Noble Kelly, Eastern Carolina Organics Co-Manager Sandi Kronick and horticulturist Erin Weston–to organize a market that would open next spring, they learned the downtown alliance planned to open one in Moore Square Park this summer.

“We were grappling with decisions about where to put the market and how to secure funds to run it when we heard,” says Noble Kelly. “The timeline was tight, but we knew that if we wanted to help launch a local market, we had to act now.”

So they joined the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, talking to farmers, developing market regulations and getting the word out. Today all five women remain involved with the market, although Young has since moved to New York. Noble Kelly is promoting it pro bono, while Kronick sits on an advisory committee. Both Noble Kelly and Weston serve on the board of directors.

Ellen Fragola, marketing and events manager for the downtown alliance, says her organization has been looking to open a downtown farmers’ market since she joined the staff in February. “Then N.C. Cooperative Extension Agent Carl Cantaluppi reached out to us, and we started organizing.”

Cantaluppi credits Gene Matthews, a Vance County man who has worked in Raleigh’s inspections department since 1984, with inspiring him to contact the Alliance.

When Matthews learned that $1.8 billion worth of new construction was planned for downtown–much of it high-rise apartments to be sold for $300,000 and more–he saw an opportunity for farmers from Vance, Granville and Warren counties.

“I was raised in Vance County, and I’ve been growing produce all my life. All my friends are farmers,” Matthews says. “This area is economically depressed. I’m trying to get farmers together with Carl and find them an outlet for their produce. People in Raleigh have to eat, and soon it will be too expensive to get food from California. We can grow it right here and take it to Raleigh.”

For years, Matthews watched the Carrboro market grow, knowing that the same success was possible in Raleigh. The Moore Square market will be similar to Carrboro’s market in its focus on local food; farms within 90 miles of the market will get first priority as vendors. Farmers must attend the market themselves or send knowledgeable employees, so second-hand selling is not allowed.

But unlike Carrboro’s market, which sells only products grown within a 50-mile radius, the Moore Square market will also offer some items from across the state, such as fruit from North Carolina’s mountains. “Essentially, if it’s grown, raised and produced in North Carolina, we’d love to consider it as an offering at our market, but we’ll give priority to local growers,” Harris says.

There are upsides to both decisions. Sheila Neal, Carrboro’s market manager, points out that more than 100 varieties of apples can grow in the Piedmont, even though folks won’t find them in grocery stores. When a market restricts its growing area, farmers may be motivated to grow those apples, giving people a chance to taste unusual varities and support nearby farms. By offering apples from Western North Carolina, the Moore Square market will give customers choices they may be more familiar with while continuing to support farmers across the state.

Opening the market to North Carolina growers is just one way it will be more customer oriented–and a little less farmer-focused–than other local markets. While a farmers-only board of directors manages both the Carrboro and Durham markets, the Moore Square market board includes local chefs and representatives from the downtown alliance and Moore Square Business District as well as farmers. Lumpy’s ice cream and La Farm Bakery, which are not considered farm operations, will also be part of the market.

“We want to give smaller farmers and artisans who may not be able to participate in other markets an opportunity to sell their products,” Harris says. “Lumpy’s and La Farm are considered local food artisans, independent people who handcraft their products. Lumpy’s uses local eggs and milk for his ice cream. La Farm’s bread is baked fresh every morning in Cary and is of very high quality.”

Chapel Hill Creamery’s Portia McKnight believes Lumpy’s and La Farm will be good for business. “I think this ought to be a market that provides as complete a shopping experience as possible,” she says. “I’m not suggesting we sell toilet paper, but we need to focus on serving the customers’ needs, not only the needs of the vendor, and great bread is definitely a customer need.”

Not all farmers agree. Dorothy Booth, the owner of Angels Nest Farm and Bakery, pulled out of the market after learning of the decision to admit the two operations. “La Farm is a commercial bakery, and I believe a farmers’ market in the truest sense of the word is made up of farmers who grow or create their produce.”

Booth sells scones and empanadas–filled with fruit and vegetables she grows herself–at the Durham market and by special order. Just last week A Southern Season ordered 500 of her empanadas. “They approached me, and I’m thrilled,” she says. “And I hope the farmers in Raleigh do well, because every farmer wants other farmers to succeed.”

At Moore Square, Kevin Purk of Tiny Farm tells me he had customers ready to buy his blueberries and potatoes at 10:30 a.m. People are walking down Blount Street with bags full of produce at 11:15, and by 2 p.m. McKnight is sold out of fresh mozzarella, La Farm is out of bread and Wrenn’s Farm is selling a second truckload of produce. When I mention the strong turnout to Harris, she smiles, then begins talking about the four new farmers who will join the market next week.