Posted by Tony Ricci on 07/28 at 10:19 AM
It’s vegetable high season, and farm stands are cropping up like weeds in a carrot patch. Corn squatters and cantaloupe hucksters have taken over every vacant space along the highways, and official farmers markets are swarming with customers hungry for the fruits of the farmers’ labor. This sudden appearance of bounty after months of impatient waiting for the first ripe tomato seems almost magical. From the outsider’s perspective it’s just another one of those immutable expressions of the natural world that most people accept, like the rising of the sun. Is it even conceivable to have summer without a farm stand overflowing with tomatoes, corn, squash, and peaches?
But farmers generally have a different perspective on the weekly event that keeps them swarming like wasps over a ripe melon patch – even though we are more than willing to encourage the illusion of our supernatural ability to make vegetables appear out of thin air. What really happens is more mundane and unexciting. It’s mostly the culmination of a steady, weekly routine that starts sometime in March and winds down at the end of November. This time of year we’re basically on autopilot.
Every farmer has a unique system to keep the regular flow of vegetables coming from the field to the market stand. For us it means two days of picking, packing, and scrounging from every available source for our wholesale and retail markets. I spend as much time on the phone as I do in the packing shed, making sure that the balance of supply and demand does not leave us with a pile of compost at the end of the week.
By the time market day arrives, everything is staged for the ultimate performance that begins precisely at 12 noon every Thursday. The only thing I want to do on the morning of market is pack my van, pet my dog, and kiss my wife goodbye. Sometimes I have to try this sequence of events multiple times before I get it right because of the pre-market anxiety that never seems to dissipate no matter how many times I do this.
Once in a distracted moment of seasonal dementia, I accidentally packed my dog, pet my wife, and kissed an exceptionally gorgeous case of Chioggia beets. Needless to say, none of my victims were particularly happy about my lapse of sanity, especially my dog who really should have been packed in a 1-1/9 bushel box instead of a pea box. I just barely avoided a sexual harassment suit from the beets by dropping them off at the nearest restaurant. And my wife just patted me back on the head, gave me a dog biscuit, and told me to have a good day at market.
You would think the ride to market would calm my nerves, but mostly I continue obsessing over the details of the previous two days. It’s usually about 15 miles down the road that I actually remember the one important item that I left behind – the cash box, the signs, the display bins, my socks – and then the weight of summer seems lifted from my shoulders. Nothing I can do now except punt.
I’m usually the first to arrive at market where I meet up with my helper; and between the two of us we practice the age-old ritual of Zen and the Art of Tomato Stacking. A few early birds are out, relaxing in the park or strolling down by the river. It’s tough trying to explain to these folks that market starts at noon and they’ll have to wait while we set up our stand. Most people are patient and allow us to continue to work, but there are always a few who just don’t get why we can’t just drop everything and sell those tomatoes. If we had a storefront and our doors didn’t open until a certain hour, they would get it. But we’re outside, exposed to the world as we work our magic.
As the opening bell draws near, the pavilion at Portstown Park is filled to overflowing with customers who stroll through the market eyeing up the best produce and planning their supper. A fleet of baby strollers navigates through the crowd; toddlers poke their heads into every bin of produce, proudly rattling off the names of vegetables; the din of conversation is drowned out only by the passing freight train that will routinely interrupt our exchange of recipes every 15 minutes. It’s the last ingredient that makes all our efforts meaningful – the community.
Our slight-of-hand is complete and the pavilion is transformed into an open-air market. Then James, our master of ceremonies, bellows out that we’re open for business and the feeding frenzy begins. That’s when I look around the stand, ready for the first customer and ask anxiously, “Where are the bags?” My helper just gives me a rueful look. It’s time to punt.
Author: Tony Ricci
Bio: Co-owner and operator of Green Heron Farm in southern Huntingdon County | Provides year-round supplies of local, organic vegetables (retail and wholesale) across central Pennsylvania
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