Thursday, August 25, 2005


Locally grown — and cooked

Every Saturday for the past two years, Ann Starbard has traveled close to 70 miles for a chance to sell goat cheese from a stand at the Marblehead Farmers Market.

She loads her grey GMC truck with logs of different varieties of cheeses and leaves Crystal Brook Farm in Sterling at 6:30 a.m. to get to the market for the 9 a.m. opening.

Starbard is one of nearly a dozen farmers from Massachusetts and as far as away as Vermont who set up shop at the market every Saturday from June through Oct. 22.

It's all worth it, she said.

"We have a loyal customer base and an appreciative customer is important to me," Starbard said.

The farmers market itself is a study in contrasts, bohemian and suburban.

Angela Masciale played the guitar and sang to a group of people sitting on the grass. Women dressed in long floral skirts, paired with tank tops and sandals, walked along with men in flannel shirts and long hair. Others came in luxury cars, wore T-shirts from their last vacation to the Caribbean and walked their dogs.

The two worlds came together peacefully as people picked over apples, broccoli and bunches of flowers.

The Marblehead Farmers Market began eight years ago after residents organized an organic co-op which they distributed among 250 people.

Since there wasn't a variety of vegetables being grown, people were asking for more choices. The inspiration for the market came when Don Morgan was driving his daughter to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. when he saw a market alongside the road.

He thought: Why not bring the concept to Marblehead?

The market began with two farms and has since grown to 11 growers who offer organic culinary and medicinal herbs, potted plants, beef, lamb, honey and wool products.

Marblehead is one of many towns around the region that host farmers' markets.

David Webber, farmers market coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources in Boston, said there were 90 markets in the year 2000. That number has increased to 109 this year.

In New Hampshire, there were only 29 farmers markets operating in 2001, said Jack Potter, president of the New Hampshire Farmers Market Association. The number went up to 52 in 2004 and two more markets opened this year.

"It seemed like a farmers market was something that people wanted," he said.

Morgan isn't a farmer, but he does have a garden of his own, just as his parents did in St. Louis.

"Part of it was to keep open space," said Morgan. "If we were successful, we could continue to farm and not sell the land for development."

Attendance at the market has been consistent at 1,100, said Gene Jacobi, one of the volunteers.

Vendors and farmers said being at the market is profitable. One of them is Mike Molnar of Great Harvest Bread in Beverly.

Molnar has been participating in the market for two years. Before deciding to join those selling goods at the venue, Molnar and his wife walked through the market as spectators to get a feel for it.

"It's a lot of fun, and very lively," said Molnar.

At his booth, a line formed of people not just buying bread, but also looking for a sample.

He said he sells as much bread in three hours as he does at his bakery in 11 hours.

"Coming here has been great," Molnar said. "The demographic is well-educated, health-conscious and tends to get what we're all about. You need to have the right town for a farmer's market like this one and Marblehead is definitely it."

Morgan or Jacobi are not surprised by the success of the Marblehead market.

"People are looking for quality and there's something to be said about shopping and buying from the person who produced it," Morgan said. "When you buy a car, the parts come from so many places, you don't feel you've helped a neighbor."

By the looks of the market this past Saturday, Morgan was right. Farmers from Amesbury, Salisbury and Danvers were on hand, selling fruits and vegetables, picked by vendors just hours before heading to the market.

Jacobi said there was another element — the market has become a social gathering place in town.

Mothers with children in tow, groups of teens listening to their iPods or talking on their cell phones strolled through the area. Blue, white and brown striped tents housed flower arrangements and herbs from the Herbfarmacy in Salisbury. A Farm for All Seasons in Danvers offered cherry tomatoes, blueberries and bunches of flowers.

A long line formed at the cash register for Cider Hill Farms of Amesbury, which offered several tables of boxes filled with vegetables including corn, carrots, peppers, broccoli and eggplant; fruits like blueberries, peaches, and apples of varieties like William Pride, Paula Red, Early Gold and Jersey Mac.

Having fresh produce is not enough to attract people, as many come looking for a place to get together with friends on a Saturday, so organizers turned the market into a community event. In addition to the farm stands, there are weekly cooking demonstrations by local chefs, a tent where people can buy baked goods and coffee; and vendors selling homemade pickles, jam, jelly and salad dressing.

Education is an important aspect of the farmer's market with groups offering information about the environment, recycling and other topics.

"With the farmers' market, we are clearly trying to support the farmers," Jacobi said. "But we decided to bring more community organizations so people don't come just for the food, but also for information.

"It's like a town center for a couple of hours," said Jacobi.

Jacobi's wife, Judy, chairwoman of the Marblehead board of selectman, also volunteers at the market. She often gets questions about town government and a few complaints.

There are also fun things to watch, such as a demonstration by local chefs from such restaurants as Flynnie's on the Avenue, Foodie's Feast and Sweeney's Retreat, all of Marblehead, and the Grapevine Restaurant in Salem.

Louise Moore, chef and manager at Flynnies on the Avenue in Marblehead, has volunteered as a cooking demonstrator at the farmers market for two years, at Morgan's suggestion.

"It sounded liked a great idea," Moore said. "It has a dual purpose to teach people how to use the products sold there and to promote the restaurant."

A week before her show, the attends the market to see what products are in season. She then decides what she'll make during the demonstration, either specials on the restaurant's menu or her own dishes, including a caramelized eggplant sauce.

"I look forward to it," said Moore. "A lot of times, this is a way to connect with our customer. It's a way to tell them, 'Here's the person in the kitchen."

Moore and other chefs who lead the demonstrations at the farmers market hand out copies of the recipes for people to take home. Upcoming chefs include Phil Sweeney of Sweeney's Retreat in Marblehead, Federico Barboza of Caffee Italia and Kate Hammond of Grapevine.

For those who prefer entertainment over cooking, the market also offers that option.

Clowns, magicians, puppeteers and musicians provide entertainment at the farmer's market for the young and the young at heart.

Jo Jacques of Salem, Mass., was making her second trip of the month to the market with her dog, Snickers.

"It's nice to come," said Jacques, who comes looking for things like Rock River Farm's all-natural beef. "I like it because it's close by, they're pet-friendly and I get to buy meat."

Fellow shopper Mary Pasquale of Salem, Mass., said she tries to get to the market by 9:45 a.m. to get first dibs on the produce.

"I feel like a little kid at a candy store," she said in between biting into a peach.

She stays at least two hours, looking through the tents and socializing with friends and neighbors.

"This exemplifies the true meaning of a market. You have the farmers who plant the seeds, till the earth and harvest the crops for us to enjoy. There's a connection to Mother Earth," Pasquale said.

Starbard, who owns Crystal Brook Farm with her husband Eric, agreed. She was invited to the Marblehead farmers market when organizers were looking for a cheese producer. Starbard, who has 65 Alpine and Saanen goats that produce milk for cheese, was more than willing to comply.

"Owning a farm is not easy, and having people appreciate our product makes it all worth it," Starbard said.

Farmers markets are popular all over North of Boston.

It's that sense of community that keeps people coming back and, for the adults, takes them back to yesteryear, said Jack Potter, president of the New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association.

He said an elderly woman drove from Laconia to Sanbornton, N.H. for the farmer's market and once told him, "When I come to the market, I feel like a little girl again."

Jeff Cole, executive director of the Massachusetts Federation of Farmer's Markets, predicts the future of the markets looks bright.

"There seems to be a demand for them and the markets don't seem to slow down," Cole said.

David Webber, farmers market coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources in Boston, agrees.

"People are seeing the success of farmers markets in neighboring towns and they start their own, which fuels the growth," he said.

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