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Back to our Roots

The Greenwich Farmers Market attracts dedicated producers and fiercely loyal customers

Whether it’s due to concern over the safety of our food supply, enlightened interest in the humane treatment of animals or the ever-spiraling rise in gas prices, Connecticut’s agriculturalists say they’ve seen a huge shift in consumer consciousness away from giant, multinational agribusinesses to food that is grown and produced locally by small, independent farmers. In fact, proponents of this new consumer movement have a name —locavores — for folks who insist on eating local foods.

Evidence of this movement is most readily seen in the proliferation of farmers markets around the state. Last year, there were eighty-seven such markets in Connecticut. This year the number of farmers markets has jumped to over 100, with nearly one-quarter of them in Fairfield County. “Farmers markets are hot. The last two years have been crazy here,” attests Rick Macsuga, who has been the farmers market coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture for more than two decades.

“We’re seeing a lot more people becoming aware of their local food system,” he says. “I just heard from our largest apple grower in the state. He sold out in February, even though he had a record crop. In past years, it was a struggle to get rid of his inventory. In fact, we have more demand than we have producers for local farmers markets.”

At one time, farmers markets used to be supplied by only the smaller growers who derived most of their income from going to market. Today, Macsuga says, larger farmers are doing the markets as part of a new strategy to market undersize or oversize produce that isn’t desirable to wholesalers. The state’s Department of Agriculture insists that only Connecticut producers can market their wares at farmers markets. That means distributors and middle men are cut out of the picture. Connecticut’s farmers markets are therefore nexus points where locavores can actually meet and speak directly with the people who grow their fruits and vegetables, raise the lambs and cows that provide meat for their suppers and handmake the cheese from the milk of those animals.

“My husband says, ‘Once you eat something from our farm, you’re part of our farm. You’re connected,’ ” says Laura McKinney, who, with her husband David Blyn, grows organic vegetables from seed at their fifty-acre Riverbank Farm in Roxbury.

McKinney and her husband, who have two young children, used to make the trek from Roxbury to New York City’s markets with organic produce from their farm, which Blyn started in 1991. Those marathon market days were grueling, lasting from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. Now the farthest south they travel is to the Greenwich Farmers Market, arguably the most distant venue from the state’s growing fields. That hasn’t seemed to make a difference with the farmers, many of whom favor the Greenwich market over many others that they supply. “We jumped at the chance to go there,” McKinney relates. “Of all the markets we attend, David just loves to go to Greenwich. For him, it’s a social hour. There are a lot of regulars, older people, who’ve become part of our community.”

Though it was not the first to be established in the state (that distinction goes to Stamford’s Downtown French Market, which is more than twenty-five years old), since its inception in 1990, the Greenwich Farmers Market has become “the benchmark for bringing farmers long distances,” says Macsuga. It’s become a model for other markets in Fairfield County.

“Farmers travel the farthest to get there, but the demographics are great; there are lots of foodies, and that’s part of what’s driving this. Every town in Fairfield County wants to duplicate what they’ve got in Greenwich,” adds Macsuga, who notes that other markets have cropped up in Westport, New Canaan and Sandy Hook, thanks in part to the success of the market here. In 2007 Fairfield County boasted twenty farmers markets. This year, according to Macsuga, three more will be added with a market across from the Monroe green, another at Stamford’s Bartlett Arboretum and a third in Ridgefield. In addition, the farmers market at Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo will expand to two days a week.

Any way you slice it, the Greenwich Farmers Market has been a huge success, according to Jim Carr, who, as director of the market since 1996, has served as the liaison between the town and the farmers. “I’ve had farmers tell me it’s one of the best-run markets in the state,” Carr says. “It’s the sophistication of the consumer and the fact that the town of Greenwich considers the farmers market to be a very important asset. It gets tremendous support.”

For the past eighteen years, loyal patrons have crowded the Metro-North commuter parking lot at Arch and Horseneck streets, near exit 3 of I-95, from 9:30 in the morning until 1 p.m. every Saturday from mid-May till late December, to gather goodies from their favorite market sellers. Ten vendors sell a diversity of premium farm products, from raw milk cheeses, fresh eggs and local honey to a cornucopia of freshly picked fruits and veggies. There are pails of just-cut flowers, potted plants, and jams, jellies and baked goods.

“It’s a Saturday ritual for me,” says Bobbi Hopkins, a realtor in town. “Vendors are so nice and so wanting to please. They are such hard workers, come rain or shine. Sometimes they have significant weather conditions to contend with, and yet they are always there with their produce.”

Bob Flenner says that after four years his Saturday market excursions have become as important to him for the friendships he’s developed as the food he loves to buy there. “My wife and I are famous for getting there at 10:30 and staying until noon,” he admits. “We go to Plasko’s first. We catch up with people and talk,” he says. “We fell in love with Plasko’s farm breads — the sourdough boule and the raspberry and white chocolate scones in particular.” Then, it’s on to chat with market favorites Suzanne and Stan Sankow of Sankow’s Beaver Brook Farm, who produce “wonderful artisanal cheeses that are top of the line, and sheep’s milk yogurt which, if you like old-fashioned yogurt with the real bite, that’s what you get,” Flenner says with the enthusiasm of a true devotee.

Flenner’s market rounds also include a pit stop at Pinchbeck’s Rose Farm stand, where he typically buys two freshly cut bouquets for the week, a favorite being the sweet-smelling purple roses that harken back to another era. He also enjoys a chat with his friend Andrew Coté of Silvermine Apiary, whose local honey and bee products are getting lots of attention, thanks to Coté’s beekeeping adventures around the globe (“Bees Without Borders” at left). Flenner says he benefits greatly from the bee pollen and royal jelly that he buys from Coté on a regular basis, which he uses after physical workouts to help boost his immune system. Paul Newman is another Coté admirer (the actor shops at the Westport Farmers Market). Newman says that the honey has helped alleviate his allergies, another benefit of eating raw honey made by bees that are pollinating local plants. Pasteurizing honey lessens the health benefits, Coté explains, and when it’s nonlocal you’re not building up tolerances to the local flora.

Coté shows off his bees in a glass display hive, which always attracts a gaggle of gape-mouthed kids, according to Carr. The other visual attraction happens in the fall, when Suzanne Sankow brings her old-fashioned spinning wheel to the market and spins wool into yarn. “Young and old alike are fascinated. There’s always a crowd around,” says Carr. Suzanne goes to the trouble to set up a separate tent for “wool day,” “so that people would understand that we weren’t brokering the products [raw fleeces, boiled wool vests, and knitted hats and sweaters] that come from our wool.”

Suzanne has been participating in the Greenwich Farmers Market for six years, and it’s one of five weekly markets supplied by her family farm. “It’s one of our main sources of income,” she says. However, she also considers the market experience to be a prime opportunity to teach people what farming and the lifestyle it entails are all about.

It’s not an easy row to hoe as far as earning a living goes. A bit of luck and Suzanne’s talents at cheese-making brought her 175-acre Beaver Brook Farm in Lyme’s Pleasant Valley back from the brink of extinction. Operated as a dairy farm since 1917, Beaver Brook went out of business but was saved from being turned into a subdivision thanks to the discovery of a gravel quarry on the property. The sale of rocks helped the Sankows repopulate the farm with sheep in 1984. Then Suzanne hired a Belgian artisan to teach her the art of cheese-making, and the rest is history. The Sankows now operate the largest sheep farm and the only sheep dairy in Connecticut, with the meat from their lambs and their raw milk cheeses being coveted by top restaurants in the state.

In addition to sheep, the Sankows keep sixteen cows that produce milk year-round, which Suzanne makes into various raw milk cheeses, as well as yogurt and ricotta. “Our milk is exceptional. The cows are not fed silage, but grass. They like eating in the pasture; even in the winter they go out to eat their hay, but not when it’s driving rain or too cold. We have compassion, but we don’t baby them,” Sankow says. People are always welcome at the farm, she adds, where they can observe all the operations of a farm. In fact, the Sankows host an annual “Farm Day” the weekend after Thanksgiving, where they give sheep-shearing and spinning demonstrations and people can sample the meat and cheeses.

Sankow relates how a woman once told her that she never ate sausage because of the way it’s made. Sankow politely corrected the woman’s notions of what she presumed might be in her sausage. “This is what makes a farmers market so successful. I’m able to answer those questions about what’s in my sausage — how come my sausage isn’t red — because we don’t use preservatives.”

Jim Carr wishes there were more people in Connecticut willing to take on the Sankows’ lifestyle. He says the biggest problem for this area and the country as a whole is a lack of local farmers, paired with an increasing demand for local food sources. That’s why as a trained botanist and longtime grower of his own food, Carr teaches ecology and gardening at both New York Botanical Garden and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, which has garnered the attention of foodies for its restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Carr says that he’s setting up a gardening program for Greenwich schoolchildren because it’s necessary to start at the grassroots level if we’re ever going to encourage young people to become farmers.

“It’s a hard life,” he admits. “But people take food for granted. They believe that it’s always going to be there — that there will always be food in California and the trucks will always run.”

But Jim Carr isn’t one to put all his eggs in one basket.

Four restaurant chefs create dishes from ingredients found at the Greenwich Farmers Market. Check out their recipes beginning on page 177.