Most farmers markets are organized by farmers. They decide who’s in — and whether they can sell produce they didn’t actually grow, or goods they didn’t make themselves — and then they go looking for customers.
But in Schenectady, the customers have gone out in search of the farmers.
The demand for fresh-grown local food has become so strong here that three large markets have flourished in the summer months, each selling on a different day of the week. But all three shut down in the fall, and residents wanted more.
At City Hall, organizers tried to keep their market running through December, but once the summer-time vegetables petered out, the farmers slowly slipped away.
It was clear to Cheryl Nechamen, Barbara Blanchard and other local-food lovers that they’d have to take matters into their own hands.
So they spent this summer driving down dirt roads in search of the sorts of farmers who never come to the average city-dweller’s mind. Forget rows of corn and climbing beans — that won’t sustain a market when the snow starts to fall.
City residents sought out butchers, bakers, dairy farmers and beekeepers. They looked for maple sugarers, wine-makers and apple growers.
By the time vegetable farmers began their last harvests of the season, this grass-roots committee had found and persuaded nearly a dozen winter farmers to drive to Schenectady, come snow or ice, and sell their goods. Not all are selling raw foods — there will also be stews and soups, soaps and lotions, pottery and wool.
Ready to open
The organizers are just now beginning to tentatively celebrate their success, with the opening of the city’s first year-round market just weeks away.
“I can’t believe it! I can hardly wait,” said Blanchard, who drove friends and even strangers to the year-round market in Troy this year as she tried to build support for the same concept in Schenectady.
Nechamen — who is well-known among those who have joined her once-a-year effort to eat only food grown within 100 miles — forms the pragmatic side of the operation.
“One of the things that farmers markets tend to suffer from is you have a small number of founding farmers and then they try to eliminate competition. It’s human nature,” she said.
Having the market run by the customers should change that dynamic, she thinks.
Rather than select farmers based on their specialties, with only one provider of each item, she’s focusing on quality. Her subcommittee inspects each farm before the farmer can join the market. Farmers must pay for their slot in advance, after filling out a detailed application. The biggest issue: they must prove that everything they sell was made or grown on their land, by them.
Organic farming is also preferred, and Nechamen is searching for small farms.
“There are a lot of farmers out there that didn’t have access to a market. The challenge is finding those other farmers. I just started sending out letters to any farm I came across,” she said.
So far, nine farmers have signed up to start on Sunday, Nov. 2, when the market opens in Robb Alley at Proctors.
It will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday, with live music, cooking demonstrations and other activities each week.
City residents seem to have found their perfect match in the farmers they’ve recruited so far. Not one is a typical farmer.
There’s Frank Johnson of Sweet Tree Farm in Carlisle, who sells not only free-range beef and chicken, but even pastures his pigs.
Jody Somers has taken that one step further. At Dancing Ewe Farm in Granville, he milks his flock of sheep to produce cheese, a pecorino made exactly as it’s made in Tuscany, Italy. (He not only took lessons there, but found a wife as well.)
He also keeps a herd of 10 cows to make prima caciotta and ricotta cheeses.
But his main source of milk comes from his flock of 150 sheep, which don’t lactate in the winter. That won’t affect his sales — the cheese he made in early summer will have aged just enough to be appreciated this Christmas.
Until now, he’s sold his cheese only in New York City, but he loses part of his revenue to overhead as he pays for fuel and stays overnight in a hotel so he can set up in time for the 8 a.m. Friday market.
“It’s more expensive, but it’s a big market. There’s a lot of foot traffic,” he said.
He could sell at Troy’s market instead, but he’d make a quarter of what he makes in New York City, he said.
That raises the question of why he’d bother with a Schenectady market. The short answer is that the market committee talked him into it. But he’s become a strong proponent of their belief in buying local food.
“It’s really important to be local. It’s really important for local people to be able to buy local,” he said.
The city residents also found farmers who have shared their ideals for a lifetime. Pat Becker of Abbey Farm in Amsterdam turned to organic, whole-wheat, healthy foods when she was a freshman in college.
It took just one meal in the cafeteria to persuade her to seek out local farms.
“At home we’d always eaten from my father’s big garden,” she said. “In the cafeteria — what a difference. Something was lacking.”
She graduated from customer to baker in 1980, when a grain shortage left her unable to find whole-grain bread on store shelves.
Three decades later, she bakes with organic oats and cornmeal. For oil, she presses seeds, rather than extracting the oil with chemicals.
“Pushing it out is a little more healthy than doing it chemically,” she said. “You’re getting a more wholesome product.”
She never intended to make a living from it. She worked as a private music teacher until General Electric’s layoffs ate away her student base.
“With GE hiring less people, less people wanted lessons,” she said.
She started with a summer market near her home, but lately, she’s been looking for a market that’s open in the winter. She applied for Schenectady’s market, although she’s still not quite convinced that it will work.
“I can bake all winter. Otherwise, I have to get a job outside the house,” she said. “The baking is part of my life. But . . . they’re asking for a lot of money upfront. In the winter you have to deal with blizzards, not thunderstorms. And it’s on a Sunday, so people have to go to church and then go out again. Will they come?”
That’s the million-dollar question. But Blanchard is confident. After all, so many residents wanted this that they formed the market themselves and then persuaded the farmers to come to them.
“People will come,” she said.
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