Farmer's Markets: Where Community Begins

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Where Community Begins

by Alex Ravitz

We’re at the end of the season for those roadside farm stands, bursting with bright red tomatoes and leafy stalks of corn. It seems like a breath of yesteryear, yet farmers’ markets are growing in towns across America.

Farmers’ markets have long been a part of local communities. When farmers had excess produce, they would sell to people in their villages. Usually placed in the town square, farmers’ markets were a great way for people in the community to gather to buy food, discuss local politics and catch up on the latest gossip.

The history of farmers’ markets is a long one. The oldest continuing Farmer’s Market in the U.S. is the Pennsylvania Lancaster Central Market (LCM), which has been open since 1730 and in the same building since 1889. The LCM is such a vital part of Lancaster that it was even built into the original town plans.

Farmers’ markets declined with the times. Trading posts gave way to general stores, which gave the customer a much greater selection of products. Better transportation allowed for shipping produce over longer distances. New agricultural methods led to industrial mega-farming, where a few people could work gigantic fields of crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat. Then, in the 1970’s people became interested in the quality of their produce, as well as the cost of long distance transportation. The first “new” farmers’ markets started popping up around the country. Interest in local produce waxed and waned over the years, but never died out.

By the 1990’s there were 1,755 and by 2012, there were over 7,864 farmers’ markets, sometimes several in one town. Some farmers’ markets across the country have as many as 200 vendors. 

People are starting to turn more towards locally grown foods for several reasons: helping local economies, eating healthy, increasing biodiversity of crops, eliminating the cost of transportation, and for the most basic reason, taste. Freshly picked foods tend to taste better than food that has been sitting on a shelf for a week or more and tends to have more nutrients overall. Along with the recent surge in farmers’ markets is the increase in small organic farms. Many of these newer farms are committed to the principle that organic foods are an important component to the health of the community. Most farms that sell their produce at farmers’ markets are one of two types. They are either a more traditional farm that has been growing the same way for generations, or they are a new variety of farm, the smaller organic farm.

The traditional farms in America are where the majority of our food comes from — it’s the meat and potatoes of the country. The smaller organic farms tend to be more concerned with the individual quality of their food. They are almost never the size of the larger, traditional farms. It is difficult to manage a large scale organic farm, requiring massive amounts of labor and care to protect the crops. Organic farms also tend to be concerned with the cost of maintaining a large farm. However small organic farms can be very profitable on only 20 acres.

Established Traditions: Trenton Farmer’s Market

The Trenton Farmers’ Market in New Jersey is unusual because it is open most days of the year, instead of only part of the year, like most farmers’ markets. The market began in the early 1900’s. Farmers from all over New Jersey would come by horse and buggy to sell their produce. They are still coming today.

Russo's Orchard Lane Farm

Russo’s Orchard Lane Farm is a 364 acre farm located in Chesterfield, NJ that has been in business since 1927. They are one of the original founders at the Trenton Farmers’ Market and sell a large variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. They still grow their food the way they did it when they first started farming. They employ around 32 people from planting to selling. They pick all their food by hand, relying heavily on migrant workers from Central and South America. They get their seeds from 3 different companies, with Rutgers University as their largest provider. 

Nikki Russo, co-owner of Russo’s Orchard Lane Farm, says they need pesticides to preserve their crops. Their experience is that unregulated pests destroy too much of their product. While they do use pesticides, they care about the quality of their produce. They have never failed any inspections by the state. 

“I can reassure you that we are constantly being monitored and tested. We’ve had plain clothed people come to our farm who have purchased a dozen ears of corn or a box of tomatoes and tested it,” says Ms. Russo. “We’ve never been in any type of violation.” Local farmers are an important part of the community. Not only does buying local support the local farmer, but it also helps the local economy. “My philosophy is this, get to know your farmer. If you trust your farmer, you know that your farmer is not going to hurt you. Buying local, buying fresh, that’s the way to go.”

Cedarville Farms

Cedarville Farms is a 130 acre farm located in East Windsor, New Jersey. They are another of the original founders of the Trenton Farmers’ Market. They grow a large variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. They protect their farmland with regular crop rotation to preserve the soil. Their farm only employs around 10 people and is a relatively small operation. They try to sell their produce to local food establishments; however, most of their produce is sold at the Farmers’ Market. Whatever they don’t sell is either donated to charity or composted.
When asked if they used pesticides, a Cedarville Farms representative had this to say “Minimal, very minimal. Yes we are not an organic farm but we are actually very regulated by the government. And not just our farm, all farms in New Jersey are very regulated. What is used, when it’s used, how many times, it’s all documented.”

New Traditions: The Princeton Farmers’ Market

The Princeton Farmers’ Market in Princeton, New Jersey was founded in 2008. The market runs from May until November on every Thursday. “Our mission is to support local farmers and supply our community with wonderful food. We want our customers to have a sense of community and get to know one another.” Judith Robinson, Manager and Co-Founder of the Princeton Farmers’ Market. The Princeton Farmers’ Market has two organic farms, Cherry Grove Organic Farm and Terhune Orchards. Both are USDA certified organic and Terhune Orchards is also an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) farm that uses special methods to suppress the presence of pests aside from spraying fields with pesticides.

Cherry Grove Organic Farm

Cherry Grove Organic Farm started 12 years ago on 22 acres of land in Princeton, NJ. They have been with the Princeton Farmers’ Market for a couple of years. They grow a large variety of both seasonal produce as well as a few different heirloom varieties of certain species. They protect their farmland with regular crop rotation to preserve the soil, as well as plant cover crops in the winter to preserve the soil during the off season. They use special green manures and nutrients to further enhance the soil. Their farm employs 5 people and most of their produce is sold at farmers’ markets.

“It’s a lot of money to be a conventional farmer. It costs a lot of money for all the pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation. Less maintenance needs to be done [on organic farms] because organic farms have much more biodiversity and the plants take care of themselves vs a corn farm, which is just waves and waves of corn for miles. Something infects it and you have to spray your entire fields. The diversity is the key to organic farming.” Ryan Romano, worker at Cherry Grove Organic Farm.

Terhune Orchards

Terhune Orchards is an 185 acre farm. They designate a section of the farm to only growing organic products, which they list on their web page. By using an integrated pest management system, it allows the farm to avoid using pesticides by warding off or trapping certain types of insects that would regularly eat the crops. They, like Cherry Grove Organic Farm, also use both crop rotation and cover cropping to protect their soil from erosion.

Whether you’re buying from a traditional or organic farm, buying locally from trustworthy farmers can still be the best way to feed your family and support your community.