Winter Farmers' Market

For the past couple of months, my Bride and The Critter have been hatching a new scheme: cracking the Farmers' Market money pile.

Our little village has a summer farmers' market from June right through October - it's how we got to know half the town, as we take the whole family and the dog there bright and shiny every Saturday morning. The produce is all locally grown, and you get to know the vendors you like, buying from them fresh each week. One vendor - we call her "The Tomato Lady" (though she does have a real name, Susan) - has a place over towards the Concord river. We got to know us so well that we ended up doing back-table deals for boxes of her 'not pretty' tomatoes at ridiculously low prices. I'd buy a few pounds of beautiful heirloom tomatoes, and she'd throw in a box of 20 or 25 lbs of split or blemished ones for cooking for pennies, if not free, just because she knew we loved to cook with her fantastic produce. We bring her canned tomato sauce or corn relish in trade, so she gets to try the end result.

And then there's Clovis. I can't exactly tell where Clovis is from originally. I just know he's from someplace of warmer climate than Eastern Massachusetts. I'm thinking an island. I could ask, but I'm too busy talking to him about the fantastic vegetables that show up on his table and nobody else's.

The first day I met Clovis, I was grinning at my finds, pawing through a big pile of dark green leafy collards piled on one side of his table. I separated out about half of them and asked him what he wanted for them. There was a pause.

"What are you going to do with them?" Clovis didn't reach for his money box. He just stood there looking at me, waiting for my answer. I felt like I was being tested.

"I... I'll probably cook them down with some leftover country ham, and maybe a half an onion, or some chopped ginger. It takes a little while, but that's how I grew up eating them." (This was only a slight stretch of the truth. You couldn't have paid me to put a collard green on my plate until I was in my late 20's, at which time, I discovered a love of bitter greens that I never knew I had).

Clovis nodded solemnly, and reached for a large-ish garbage bag. I think he charged me about $3. (Like many greens, collards start out pretty voluminous before you cook them down. Don't underestimate how many you'll need). Now, when he sees me coming, he sets aside whatever particular crop he thinks we'll like. A bag of fingerling potatoes. A Guyanan version of a pumpkin, elongated and rosy pink. A hubbard squash the size of my neighbor's first grader. Each new treat is always amazing.

Through our farmers' market, I've also met other chicken people (what we call ourselves), cheese makers, and a half dozen children entrepreneurs.

We occasionally trouble ourselves to schlep over to one of the neighboring town's farmers' markets, all of which seem to be much more professional affairs. Note: I do not mean this in a complimentary way. There are a growing number of lovely, organic, extra-smug-added farms in the New England area that are doing wonderful things to bring back all manner of crops, which is a neat trick to accomplish while standing on a self-constructed pedestal. Look, I'm all for freshness, and supporting my local farmer. Hell, I just bought an entire cow from the farmer down the road. But I do not need a lecture, stated or implied, on why the corn industry is destroying human kind, particularly from the guy busy selling me a dozen ears of just-picked-that-morning corn on the cob.

I like food. You show up with a good product at a reasonable price, I'll buy your food. You throw in a little food conversation to the mix, and I'll almost certainly be back to buy more of your food tomorrow. You try and charge me six or seven bucks for a head of non-descript lettuce "to make a point" to the jack-booted thugs of the Agro-Industrial Complex, and I'm going to want to punch you in the neck.

But the difference I didn't really notice until someone pointed it out is that none of the other markets really feature any kids selling stuff. Our market has a kid that sells garlic his dad planted last fall. 2 kids selling banana bread they baked to earn a couple of extra bucks. One kid taught herself to make duct tape wallets. And one kid has a sign hawking "free-range firewood" that makes me chuckle every time I see it.

As fall came this year, someone said they were going to have a 'Winters' market for the first time, hosting it inside the Union Hall off the town green. (How much do I love living someplace with a "town green," by the way?)

The Critter had been itching to supplement her egg-selling money for a while, and pestering My Bride to make use of the Swiss sewing-robot she has, with all of its self-aware attachments. So the two of them signed up to be a vendor, and worked for several weeks putting together a collection of goodies for sale.

Blankets of various sizes (toddler, lap, baby). Burp cloths. Super-hero capes for little kids. Doll clothes. Embroidered monogram necklaces and hair tie doo-hickies. All put together and on display.

The deal was, the Critter could keep the cash from the necklaces, hair ties and doll clothes. My Bride keeps everything else.

My contribution was building a blanket display rack, and keeping The Boy quiet and occupied during the 3 hours the market runs.

It's one Saturday morning a month during the winter months, and with a couple behind us, has become a fun event we look forward to. It's an early morning of coffee, hot cider and setup/preparation as a family affair. And then a few hours of greeting and chatting with friends and neighbors, occasionally tucking some cash into the box and handing over one of the fabric creations.

We've gotten to know the vendors at the market a bit better on a different level. Several of them are the normal crew from the summer months. And there are still several enterprising kids (and my daughter's now proud to be in that club). With fewer market opportunities, there are also more farmers coming in from a little bit further afield, including a few of those 'professionals' I've bumped into elsewhere. Most of them really are lovely folks, who do it as much for the pleasure as for the income. But the first weekend, there were those 1 or 2 self-declared beacons of purity who took exception to the kids selling goods that might compete with their own wares. How are you going to compete selling hand crafted biscotti for $4 a smidge when the kid at the next table is selling "everything" cookies for fifty cents a bakers dozen? Admittedly, that's a tough one. On the other hand, that kid is my neighbor, and you I don't know.

One thing's for sure. If you don't stop looking like you just ate a steaming turd every time you look at the cute little capitalist on your left, you're chances are not going to get any better.

But really, there was only one or two curmudgeonly foreign vendors, and they didn't bother showing up for the second time around. Which was certainly no great loss.

In the meantime, the Critter made a killing, on an 8 year old scale, earning more discretionary income than I think I had until I enlisted in the Army. And several of the blankets and other fabric paraphernalia went home happily rolled into someone's re-usable go-to-market, I-used-to-be-a-Toyota-sedan collapsable sack.

I mostly just sat in the back with my book and a cup of whatever was warm, and tried to entertain the boy while the Grady girls sold things. I like listening to the conversations when my Bride humbly shows off some of her amazing handicrafts. Or the quiet glee that my daughter shows as she mentally counts up her loot. And some of the browsing customers provide their own amusement.

One elderly grandmother type pawed through the blankets and other goods, and held up a monogrammed necklace in one spotted fist.

"I'd buy this if it was pink." She somehow managed to make the statement into an accusation. Like there had been a conspiracy to change it from pink moments before she walked up, just to screw with her head.

My Bride shrugged apologetically, and tried to show her some of the other pieces.

"No. I want this one. Except it's not pink. So I won't buy it. I would buy it if it were pink." She tossed it back into the pile and stumped off. No doubt looking for something pink. Luckily, most people are a little less single minded. But we'll have more pink in the inventory, just in case she's back next month.

Both times, we somehow got lucky enough to be right next to the couple of musicians that came to the market, lending it a fun old-timey air.

A book, a cup of warm cider, a couple of hours of clawhammer banjo and fiddle tunes, and a chance to chat with my neighbors.

Holy crap... I'm turning into Garrison Keillor.