Nestled among the various fast food chains and strip malls that line South Church Street is an outdoor farmers market filled with vibrant spring flowers and a colorful rainbow of pots.
Paul Laparra, co-owner of Garden Valley Farmers Market, and his employees roam the venue in maroon t-shirts reading “Plant Better. Eat Better. Live Better.” They water flowers, unpack truck loads of plants and produce, restock items and talk with customers, drowning out the highway's ambience of bustling diesel trucks and honking horns.
“Nothing is ever set because you never know if it’s gonna be raining, if it's gonna be windy, if it's gonna be sunny,” Paul Laparra said. “Whatever the good Lord gives us that day, we'll work around it.”
However, the local farmers market has recently added a less outdoors-related task to their daily to-do list — social media outreach.
The market’s growing social media presence is aimed at attracting a younger generation of customers, according to Amber Laparra, Paul Laparra’s wife and Garden Valley Farmers Market employee.
“We have a lot of loyal, older generations that have been shopping with us for years that keep coming back, but we're really trying to get the younger generation to shop local and skip out on the Lowe's and the Home Depot,” Amber Laparra said.
Garden Valley Farmers Market started a social media marketing team last year to connect with the online generation and potential younger customers. The market has an Instagram and Facebook both run by Amber Laparra, as well as a Youtube channel, blog and weekly email list.
Paul Laparra said the market hopes to acquire a more youthful customer base because “the future is younger people.”
“We want to adapt to what they're wanting,” Paul Laparra said. “For instance, three years ago, we didn't carry house plants. Then we realized, hey, it's a different generation, a different vibe … we're just trying to key into what the future is as well, so that we can obviously be a company that's here for many years.”
Garden Valley reopened for its spring season the first week of April. The farmers market operates on a seasonal basis selling produce, flowers, plants and other local goods like jams and honey. The products currently sold align with what grows best in warmer spring climates.
“Right now, the watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupes, a lot of those things are in season around here,” Amber Laparra said. “In the fall we do pumpkins, apples and pansies. Then we transitioned into the Christmas trees for the winter, and then we closed up for January through March.”
Amber Laparra said almost all products come from local farmers and greenhouses, but because buying local can come with a higher price tag, she expects the market may struggle to reach younger customers due to cost.
“It's hard because since we're local, we're not always the cheapest,” Laparra said. “But we try to have the best quality to make up for the price difference. You just get what you pay for and it supports local.”
Elon senior Rachel Cifarelli stayed on campus when the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020 and said she did the majority of her grocery shopping at Garden Valley Farmers Market due to its outdoor venue. Cifarelli continues to shop at Garden Valley, as she prefers to buy local produce for the environmental benefits.
“When you're shopping at a big grocery store and if you look at a lot of the products, most of them are shipped from out of state, across the country or out of this nation, and so that’s a lot of air pollution,” Cifarelli said. “Whereas at a place like Garden Valley, it's much more from local farms in the N.C. area. It's just all those carbon emissions you're saving by shopping locally because the food is grown all around here, and it just takes an hour or two-hour drive to get here.”
Garden Valley Farmers Market provides all Grade A produce rather than organic, according to Amber Laparra. She said educating younger generations about vegetable grades and quality is an important factor in building a younger and Elon customer base that shops locally rather than at the grocery store.
“I think a lot of it is lack of knowledge. All of our produce that we carry is Grade A which means it's the highest grade of produce — it's better quality, more flavor and vine ripe,” Amber Laparra said. “I know a lot of younger people and Elon students are looking for the more organic route, and you can find that section in the grocery stores.”
Cifarelli said she acknowledges the slight increase in price for locally-grown produce, but for her, the benefits outweigh the extra costs.
“I think it can be tough because being eco-conscious and sustainable products tend to be more expensive, but I’m willing to pay more if the products are more sustainable,” Cifarelli said. “I think that’s something worth paying for.”
Aside from local produce and plants, Cifarelli said she also enjoys the ambiance of the outdoor market.
“Just being able to be outside while you’re grocery shopping, just that connection between the fresh air, the sunshine and seeing all this fresh produce out in front of you, honestly it’s just a great feeling,” Cifarelli said.
Paul Laparra said he works to keep the market up and running everyday because he views it not only as a business but also as a “ministry” that provides people with a “getaway” and “relaxation.”
“There's not a day that doesn't go by where someone doesn't come in here and say, ‘Wow, this is just beautiful, it spoke to my soul and my heart’,” Paul Laparra said. “It's something that people can get away from life, and they can just come out here and be in their own little zone.”