Keeping a piece of the pie

Another in an occasional series on local farmers markets

Another in an occasional series on local farmers markets

September 18, 2002|by KEVIN CLAPP

On a breezy late summer afternoon, the sweet smell of freshly popped kettle corn swirls through the air like a looping carnival ride.

Dotting the Firefighters Activities Center parking lot are a half dozen tables, each piled high with a cornucopia of pre-autumnal bounty: Fruits, vegetables, newly baked goods and cheeses to make the mouth water.

A handful of bees hover near the Firth's Honey Farm table. Under another canopy, a high pile of cantaloupe rubs shoulders with pies wrapped in plastic.


Welcome to a Shippensburg, Pa., Thursday afternoon staple, the Branch Creek Farmers Market, where peddling farm wares cuts out middlemen and offers a welcome respite from long hours on the farm.

"I prefer to meet my customers, tell them about cheese and cows and answer their questions," says Melanie Dietrich Cochran. "It's nice to make that connection. So many people are disconnected from their food."

Thanks to the South Central Farmers Market Association, local growers have been afforded the opportunity to bring their product directly to the communities of Shippensburg and Chambersburg, Pa.

Markets like Branch Creek, in its second year, may be small but often generate much-needed income for farmers involved.

Bill and Norma Firth don't make much from their market sales; the majority of their business is wholesale. But every little bit helps. Cochran's cheese, though, is sold solely at markets in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

Having grown up on a dairy farm, she broke into the cheese biz to increase her family's profitability without increasing their number of cows.

"We preserve a lot of farmland in Pennsylvania, but it doesn't do anything if we don't have any farmers," says market co-coordinator Stacey Schmader. "We want them to get a good price for a product and not deal with a middle person that takes a piece of the pie."

So when Matt Steiman, manager of Fulton Farm in Chambersburg, hauls his bounty to Southgate Shopping Center on Saturday mornings he receives every penny of sales.

Steiman manages the farm, part of the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wilson College in Chambersburg, and raises a wide array of organic produce, from eggplant, soybeans and beets to carrots, potatoes and salad greens.

Besides, a trip to market breaks up the monotony of farm life.

"It's kind of a carnival atmosphere sometimes" he says. "Hawking your stuff, interacting with people and get 'em excited about what you're doing."

According to 2000 National Farmers Market Directory, more than 2,800 markets operate in the U.S.; between 1994 and 2000, the number of markets grew 63 percent.

A Y2K USDA Farmers Market Study reported that 82 percent of all markets are self-sustaining while 19,000 farmers reported to be like Cochran, selling goods only at farmers markets.

"I think it's important for people to know what's in their food, what's on their food and see this as the center of how people can learn about their food," Schmader says. "That's what really drives me, educating people about these things."

A veteran of the three-year-old Southgate Market, Steiman and Wilson students can be found on any given Saturday morning, making small talk with customers while pushing the organic produce raised on seven of the 100 acres at Fulton Farm.

An outside observer might see sales generated at the small farmers market as nickel and dime stuff, a few bucks to augment other farm income.

But Steiman says the farm wouldn't waste its time at market if money couldn't be made. Similarly, SCFMA President Jayne Shord says the farmers market is a vital part of a vendor's livelihood.

Hoping to introduce a Greencastle, Pa., market next year, the non-profit association is also initiating efforts to persuade local restaurants to purchase local produce.

"We really want both markets to be part of the community. It's really all about building community, connecting people with where their food's grown," Shord says. "The greatest thing has been working with these people and seeing that it makes a difference. And seeing loyal customers and that they are starting to rely on us as their source for fresh food. And that is very heartening."

Shortly before 3 p.m. on a recent Thursday, a trickle of customers float between the half-dozen tables and carts at Branch Creek Farmers Market.

Organizers are light on vendors this week, short by three or four. Still there is an impressive amount of variety on display, from the decadently inviting kettle corn to bird houses, candles to sourdough bread.

Standing behind her table, Cochran greets every visitor with a smile and makes small talk with many. She offers each who pass a free sample chunk of cheese, herbed feta, tomato and basil feta, or Dragon's Breath, a hot pepperjack.

"I love the markets. I make cheese because I love the cows, by making cheese we can make more money without adding cows, which would stress the land," Cochran says. "When you farm, if you just farm, that's all it is. With this I get to milk the cows, make cheese and go to market all in the same week if I want to."

If you go

Southgate Farmers Market

8 a.m. to noon

Saturdays through Oct. 19

Southgate Shopping Center

Corner of West Washington Street and Cedar Avenue

Chambersburg, Pa.

Branch Creek Farmers Market

2 to 6 p.m.

Thursdays through Oct. 17

Firefighters Activities Center parking lot

West Orange Street

Shippensburg, Pa.

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