INDIAN TRAIL – While most of us are still sleeping, Norman and David Simpson are working. They’re often up way before the sun rises and don’t stop until daylight is gone. That’s because the brothers have a farm to maintain, a business to run and a family legacy to uphold.
The Simpsons have a long history of farming in Union County. They own roughly 40 acres off Secrest Short Cut Road, between Hemby Bridge and Lake Park, most of which has been in the family since the 1800s.
They also have a long history of selling produce in Charlotte. Norman’s grandparents, Willie and Delphia Simpson, started a small farm stand on the corner of South Kings Drive and East Morehead Street in 1941. That same stand is still there today – known as the Kings Drive Farmers Market – but it’s far from small.
Things changed when Norman’s parents, Darrell and Mary, took over in 1976. Business was slow at first, but Mary will always remember the day they sold out of lima beans.
“I was so excited, but when I told Darrell he said, ‘No, that’s not good,’” she said. “I thought if you sold out of something, it was a good thing and you’d want to come home with an empty truck, but he said every customer that comes should have the same variety to choose from. He set that precedent.”
“If they come and you don’t have what they want, they might not come back,” David added. “That’s another stop for them and people’s time is so precious to them nowadays.”
The Simpsons make sure they are always well stocked and frequently send trucks from their warehouse in Indian Trail to the stand in Charlotte if anything is running low.
“My daddy always said, ‘If you sold out, you didn’t have enough,’” Norman said.
Darrell Simpson not only set the standard for inventory, but he also started inviting other growers from the Carolinas to sell their fruits and vegetables there, too. The idea was to diversify the produce by building connections and creating a co-op of farmers.
Over time, those farmers began to fade away. Many weren’t willing to leave their farms to sell in the city three days a week, so they left their produce with the Simpsons instead. That arrangement is still in effect today, aside from a handful of local vendors who still come to the Kings Drive Farmers Market to sell shrimp, fresh cut flowers, baked goods, eggs and other products.
The produce section offers more than 100 different varieties of fruits and vegetables from the Simpson farm and farms up and down the East Coast. That’s all thanks to Darrell Simpson’s original network of growers, which his sons have not only maintained, but also expanded over the years.
“As all those relationships developed, we have a constant trade going on,” Norman said. “We have the connections, so it’s not out of our way to get it. Like, we don’t grow bananas or avocados or seedless grapes, but we carry them.”
Regulars value freshness
The market sells fresh fruits and veggies on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from April 1 through Oct. 1. Norman said the most popular items this summer are tomatoes, freestone peaches, okra, corn and blackberries. In October, they have fall flowers, pumpkins and produce, and from Nov. 25 to Dec. 25 they sell Christmas trees, wreaths and bows.
Donna Uzzell, of Charlotte, is a Kings Drive Farmers Market pro. She comes every weekend and loves the tomatoes, squash, zucchini, onions, strawberries and peaches.
“It’s very fresh,” she said. “It’s farm to table pretty much.”
Uzzell is especially picky about her tomatoes and prefers to buy them from the Simpsons instead of a grocery store.
“You can tell whether they’ve been in refrigeration for a very long time, like they sometimes do at the big stores when they transport them,” she said. “You can distinguish a taste.”
Deb Pope, of Charlotte, has only been to the market a few times, but likes the prices and the fact that most of the produce is locally grown. She said it’s important to shop local and support small farmers because if people don’t, they may lose the opportunity someday.
“It’s good to keep the money in this area,” Pope said. “I’d much rather support my neighbor than a conglomerate somewhere else.”
At the Kings Drive market, she likes to buy nectarines, cucumbers, tomatoes and cantaloupe.
“Really whatever strikes my fancy,” she said.
Farmers buck trends
Norman Simpson has seen a lot of trends from working in the farming industry for so many years. At 53 years old, Norman said he’s now noticing young people aren’t buying as much fresh produce as older generations. They’re also not cooking many meals at home because they’re going out to eat, especially in Charlotte, which has a booming restaurant and bar scene.
Small family farms are dying out, too.
“Now, it’s huge farms,” Norman said. “Those guys don’t ever see the public. They ship their produce to warehouses and grocery stores. It’s more of a business. It’s not some person growing it and taking pride in it and displaying it. It’s just about slapping a sticker on it and getting it out there. When you support little farmers, you keep a special thing alive.”
He said farming is hard work and not many people want to do it anymore. It’s dirty and hot and the days are long, but that’s exactly why he enjoys it.
“I love the way that dirt smells when you plow. I love to see the little plants come up,” he said. “I wouldn’t change my way of life for nothing.”
Norman and his brother handle most of the day-to-day operations with the help of their sons (they have seven total), a handful of full-time workers and a dozen part-time employees who just work at the market.
Brooks Morton, 76, of Monroe, has been working for the Simpsons for 28 years. He said he loves interacting with customers and enjoys the people he works with, too.
“It’s the kind of place where if you didn’t like it, you’d be better off somewhere else,” he said.
He said the market had come a long way from just one small tent on South Kings Drive. Now, it gets so busy on Saturdays he has to help direct traffic, but that’s just a testament to the community’s support.
“You’ve got customers who won’t go to nobody else,” Morton said. “They know we get the freshest produce we can get. That’s the reputation that we’ve got and they trust us. Sure, some stuff we could get cheaper, but we’re not going to put a bunch of junk out here. It’s all about quality.”
While Norman and David run the produce side, their mother, Mary, runs the market’s garden center, which offers hundreds of different varieties of indoor and outdoor plants from other growers. Darrell Simpson still helps out on the farm at 71 years old.
“My dad is the best planter. He’s the best tractor driver,” Norman said. “I get my work ethic from him.”
Darrell said he’s proud of the way the business has grown and that the farm is still in the family. He thinks his father, Willie, would be proud, too.
“He wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “They used to lease that land on Kings Drive and he was always worried someone would come in with more money and take it. He would love that we own it now. He would be thrilled.”
As for the Simpson family’s secret to success? Maybe it’s the hard work and dedication, the community’s support or the trust and strong bond amongst all the workers – Darrell has no idea.
“To be in business this long, we’ve got to be doing something right,” he said.
Want to go?
The Kings Drive Farmers Market is located on the corner where South Kings Drive meets East Morehead Street in midtown Charlotte. It’s open Tuesdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fridays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 1 through Oct. 1. Hours change during the fall and winter months. Call 704-332-6366 or check out Simpson’s Produce on Facebook.