Boston: Daniella Schulman loves her lunch-time date on Fridays. This 30-year-old is not headed for a rendezvous with her significant other. Instead, this long time Bostonian has a date every Friday afternoon at Copley Square, a few minutes walk from her workplace at Boston’s busy business district, where a weekly farmers’ market is held during summer months.
From June till October every year, Daniella and hundreds of others like her spend lunch time at farmers markets, exploring the wares that Massachussetts farmers bring down from their fields—luscious strawberries, blue berries, crisp Boston lettuce, argula, vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh greens, fragrant herbs to flowers, freshly baked bread and aromatic, exotic cheeses.
“I love the freshness of the produce I buy at farmers’ markets. They haven’t been on some truck from Mexico or California being transported to stay on supermarket shelves for days before consumers such as me buy it”, says Daniella.
Every week, she stocks up her larder bought at these markets—vegetables and fresh greens, her kids favourite sauces to go with weekday meals and a variety of bread that her family likes to tuck into.
”Weekday meals are always a challenge but with the stuff I pick up at these markets, I get to put healthy, seasonal, preservative free and delicous food on the table for my family”, she says.
During the extended summer season, hundreds of farmers markets are held across Massachusetts, which has a vibrant farming community. With soaring fuel prices now pushing the cost of transporting food across the country further up, Americans are feeling the pinch of their every day staples costing more at a time when unemployment and inflation is already putting them under pressure.
This is why farmers markets such as the ones organized in this state by the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers’ Markets every year, is recording visibly larger numbers of visitors this year as they look for ways to beat what looks like an extended bad patch for the family budget. Their logic is simple. Food that has not been transported from a long way will come minus the added cost of that fuel-guzzling travel on trucks and airplanes and that means they have to shell out much lesser to buy that.
Some 170 such farmers markets will be held this year in MA says Jeff Cole, executive director of the Federation of Massachussetts Markets and around 400 farmers will participate in these events. Cole says that while no official estimate is available on visitors last year, consumer surveys geared at studying community participation in these markets puts the average number of regular shoppers at around 540,000.
Consumers shopping at these markets perceive other significant perks as well.
”Produce from neighbouring communities means little or no preservatives or other chemicals usually used to ensure longer shelf life,” says Jennifer, another shopper at a market in Boston.
For the country’s dwindling community of farmers, thanks to the relentless squeeze on their margins by large retailers, the farmers’ markets are proving to be a successful business model that helps them skip the middlemen who take away their profits, leaving them with an ever-shrinking kitty to plough back into their farmlands.
For Sara Porth and her husband who run Atlas Farms, a 30-acre farm in MA’s Pioneer Valley, two hours west of Boston, the weekly farmers market has proved to be a confidence booster to what began as an experimental venture into sustainable living. Into their 3rd year as aspirant farmers, the couple now make over $3,500 a day at the Copley market alone, as consumers, wary of the pesticide residues and other chemicals in super-market produce, snap up organic herbs, tomatoes, salad greens and veggies from her stall.
Guatemalan baker Edgar Zavala and Bulgarian business partner Rumyana Gizdova too have struck gold at these markets, with BreadSong, their tiny Auburndale-based bakery catching the imagination of shoppers at the market with their scrumtous pies such as the the Strawberry Rhubarb pies and a range of savoury breads including best-sellers such as the Cranberry Orange Walnut and the Lemon Poppyseed breads.
Last year the bakery grossed $80-90,000 from the five-month long farmer market season alone and this year the duo are confident they will do significantly more. ”This year so many more visitors are coming in to purchase”, Zavala said.
For Justin Winters, executive chef at a Boston down town-based Italian restaurant, the farmers market at Copley is a must visit . ”I come here to pick up fresh local produce, the seasons first crops are found here and I just love the beautiful turnips and baby carrots , lettuce and herbs that I buy here. The food always tastes better when the produce is fresh off the farms”, he said.
With concerns about global warming ,the debate about wisdom of transporting food across borders and the need to support local economies now picking up, farmers’ markets are finding support from across all walks of life. Harvard University has been organizing a farmers’ market in its campus since 2006, sponsored by the Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS), the body that organizes all food and catering for its residents. Response to the market itself has been tremendous according to Crista Martin, director marketing of HUDS.
”As part of our food literacy project, students are taught about healthy eating and so, when the market comes around, they constitute a large segment of the buyers . Youngsters have huge interest in food and they love also picking up produce and baked goods that they don’t have to cook , which is blessing given their busy schedules”, says Crista.
The university is also helping the cause of the local farming community by purchasing from them.
”We work with several vendors and emphasize local purchasing whenever possible. During fall, roughly 40% of our produce is local. During winter, that number drops, but we still feature a lot of cold-stored local produce, such as squashes and root vegetables. We rely on our produce vendor, Costa, who coordinates with many smaller area farmers and the Pioneer Valley Growers Association to supply as much Massachusetts-grown produce as possible,” Crista adds.
For instance, its annual requirement of apples and over 750 pounds of squash, is procured from these farmers through its designated vendors.
”New England has a great farmer community and the annual market at Harvard is our way of supporting them and openingn up a window of opportunity for them.And as we grow, the opportunity for the farmer community to supply to us is also likely to grow”, Crista says. According to her, during the school year, HUDS serves approximately 25,000 meals/day and 5 million meals annually, which means immense possibility of growth for the farmers .
Zavala seems to have the last word on the farmers market. ”It is also a great place to network and value add for the entire farming community too. This year I bartered a quantity of my speciality bread with the farmer in the neighbouring stall at the market who gave me his farm fresh strawberries. And that is why the strawberry rhubarb pie today is so delicious”, he smiles. The United States has some 4000 farmers markets currently and according to department of agriculture statistics, some$1 billion was spent by consumers who shopped at these, last year.