Managing a Farmers Market and Shared-Use Kitchen: A Conversation With Jill Cockerham

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Jill Cockerham HeadshotJill Cockerham serves as the Local Foods Coordinator for Ashe and Alleghany County Extension Centers in the North Central District where her primary responsibilities include managing the Alleghany Farmers Market and the High Country Commercial Kitchen. Alleghany Farmers Market is a producer-only market located at Crouse Park in downtown Sparta, and the High Country Commercial Kitchen is a shared-use, incubator kitchen available for caterers, food trucks, NCDA-inspected food entrepreneurs, and farmers and producers located in Jefferson, NC. “Working closely with NCDA and the health department, I have gained a more in-depth understanding of the oftentimes complex and nuanced regulatory requirements that food businesses must navigate in order to legally operate.” Jill also assists farmers and value-added producers in finding grant funding opportunities, developing and expanding product lines, and establishing new market opportunities.

Not many people can say they love working on Saturdays but Jill shared that her favorite part of her role is farmers market Saturdays! “The Alleghany Farmers Market is a great place for community members to gather, hang out, and meet face-to-face with local growers, producers & craftspeople. It’s also an easy, cost-effective way to launch a new food business or find willing customers for your garden excess of zucchini! Farmers markets foster the human connection in the grower-consumer relationship that is mostly invisible on a commercial scale” she said. 

Jill’s Local Food Landscape

Alleghany and Ashe County are located in the northwestern corner of North Carolina, bordered by Tenneessee and Virginia. Alleghany is the fifth-smallest county in land area (233 square miles) and the sixth-smallest in population with approximately 11,000 residents (NCpedia). Jill shared there is just one grocery store in the county. Christmas tree farms are a huge part of the agriculture production in both counties, with corn, tobacco, cattle, and poultry falling closely behind (NCpedia). Ashe County is also known for its cheese production. Jill shared that because of the significant difference in regulatory requirements in Virginia and Tennessee compared to North Carolina, it can be challenging to attract value-added producers to markets in her counties because the other states have more relaxed cottage kitchen laws governing food production and sales. 

Jill’s Primary Projects & Programs

Jill is currently working to accept EBT/SNAP benefits at the Alleghany Farmers Market. She also serves on the Food Access Working Group as part of the Wellness Coalition (in Alleghany County) where other community stakeholders are assisting with funding market projects and infrastructure upgrades.Alleghany County Farmers MarketFor her kitchen manager role, Jill is part of the North Carolina Network of Incubator Kitchens (NC-NIK), a statewide collaborative of food-based business incubators across the state. Through NC-NIK, she formed a partnership with WE Power Food in Hillsborough, NC and helped host a WE Power Food Empowerment Expo event in September 2022 in Boone. “WE Power Food is designed for women, led by women, to empower and support women food producers through strong networks and the sharing of resources,” (WE Power Food). Coming up in July 2023, High Country Community Kitchen will provide space for a 12-week Culinary Training Program featuring local chefs and instructors in conjunction with Wilkes Community College and Lost Province Cultural Arts Center.Jill Cockerham at the High Country Commercial KitchenOther things Jill hopes to offer in the near future include workshops on starting a food business, small-scale grower events, and permaculture/horticulture workshops. She also hopes to create a food business resource guide. Jill shared that “since I’m the only (to my knowledge) Extension Local Foods Agent who actively manages both a farmers market and shared-used kitchen, it gives me a unique perspective on local food trends, community needs and small food businesses.” 

Jill’s Final Thoughts

Jill credits a lot of the current local food scene markets and promotion in NC to organizations like ASAP, CFSA, Organic Growers School, and of course N.C. Cooperative Extension. She thinks that local agriculture and food businesses will continue to grow and put NC as a leader in local food promotion and production. 

Jill’s Favorite Place to Buy Local and Favorite Recipes Using Local Food

“I’d like to think I’m one of the best customers at the market I manage!” Jill shared that through shopping at the market each week for produce and meat she only has to supplement a few things from the grocery store. She also finds that the market is a great place to shop for local gifts like cutting boards, body care products, and lots of other handmade goods. “My favorite recent market finds have been garlic scapes (for garlic scape pesto) and a new kitchen user’s homegrown blueberry-raspberry jam!”