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Sunday, November 29, 2009

An enhanced status for the farmers' market

By Dick Hirsch

When we started making regular visits to the farmers’ market there was plenty of parking space. Not anymore. Now the narrow streets adjacent to the market are crowded and finding a convenient spot to park is based on both cunning and luck.

In the old days---that would be just a year or two ago---the market itself was comfortably patronized by an interesting conglomeration of people: some yokels, a few restaurant owners from high profile places, and the largest group, men and women who obviously believed it was worthwhile to get up early and buy whatever seasonal produce was available directly from the men and women who grew it and harvested it.

Were their tomatoes firmer? Usually. Were their cabbages larger? Mostly. Were the peaches, plums, berries, cherries, peppers, potatoes, squash, beans, corn, cucumbers, carrots, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, parsnips and the others fresher and less expensive than the supermarket? Fresher? For sure. Cheaper? Not necessarily.

I look at it this way: If I can deal with a guy who was busy the day before harvesting his potatoes or his beets or his cauliflower so he could load up his truck and get to the market by 5:30 the next morning, I’ll pay his price, whatever it is. We used to buy potatoes from Dan, miniature potatoes, the size of marbles or ping-pong balls, and he educated me about the effort and the pain involved in digging potatoes, especially the small ones. That is hands and knees work, dusty, backbreaking and exhausting. I don’t see Dan anymore and I hope he is well, sleeping late on market days.

Then there was Cary. His beans, cabbage and tomatoes earned our respect. He didn’t spend time lettering price signs; he just charged a dollar for a quart of beans, a head of cabbage or a small basket of tomatoes. When he wasn’t at his usual spot, we missed him. We asked around and found that he had died unexpectedly one evening while watching TV.

Another farmer who changed my life is Don, from whom we bought the beets and Swiss chard he lovingly nurtured. I hadn’t touched a beet in years; it was the only vegetable with which I had no relationship. Don gently proffered his bunches of beets, small beets, which he insisted were tasty and tender. He converted me; thanks to Don, beets are now on my approved list.

I mention this as background because the farmers’ markets have had a remarkable growth in popularity. At the height of the season it was not only difficult to park, it was extremely crowded in the aisles. Most people were being much more patient than they would be at a supermarket. They were happy to be there, inspecting the produce and realizing the satisfaction of buying from the grower. It’s part of the greening of the US, the urge to buy from local growers. It’s a happy and busy time at the market, great for the shoppers and even better for the farmers.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned apples. From my vantage point, the arrival of apple time in the fall is the climax of the growing season. Apples grow in virtually every state, but New York has an especially large number of growers and an abundant and diversified crop.

To walk down the aisles and see those displays of exquisite apples is a joyous experience. This year, with the damp and cool weather, the crop was somewhat smaller than normal, but the apples themselves are as tantalizing as ever. People argue about which variety is the best for what purpose, eating, baking or making sauce. McIntosh continues to be very popular, as are Cortland, Crispin, Jonagold, Fuji, Gala or Delicious, among others.

My own two favorites for eating are Empire, a popular cross between Red Delicious and McIntosh, developed in New York, and Braeburn, a crisp, tart late-blooming species that migrated here from New Zealand.

Over the years I’ve become friendly with some apple farmers. It’s a difficult business, impacted by the economy and the weather. In addition to all the typical business concerns, there are diseases and critters to be contended with and hailstorms to worry about.

We took a bold step early in the spring. We planted two semi-dwarf apple trees in the yard, one Empire and one Braeburn. The diameter of the trunks is smaller than a broomstick, but I hope one day to pick an apple from those trees. Meanwhile, you’ll see me at the market, whenever I can find a parking space.


At 5:03 PM, Blogger Jeffrey said...

Dick you write well! For Sukkot I went apple picking, and once again found that the farm charges more than the Supermarket, which sometimes has better tasting fruit. I'll think about your article though next time I pass a farmers' market.


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