Anatomy of a Farmers Market

Part 2: To Market, to Market
by Sara Coblyn Porth

I drive down the winding rural road to the farm, enjoying the quiet of early morning and watching as the mist rises from the nearby fields. I breathe in the quiet beauty. The stillness belies the pace of activity that occurred just the day before as our crew pulled the harvest from the field in anticipation of today's market.

Their day started at 5 a.m. with the harvest of the tender leafy vegetables: salad greens, arugula, kale, collard greens, Swiss chard and lettuce.  It was critical that these veggies were picked before the heat of the sun would cause them to wilt at the slice of the harvest knife. Meanwhile, the fruit crops-summer squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants-don't get harvested until the morning dew has dried off.  Harvesting these crops while they are wet can promote the spread of disease.

After the greens, the roots (carrots, beets, scallions) are pulled from the soil. Broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage are cut and stored in totes.  Everything is trucked back to the barn and unloaded to be washed, weighed and packed for market. While the wash crew cleans the harvest, the rest of the crew loads more harvest totes into the truck and heads out to pick fruit crops. They will spend a couple of hours at this task and then bring them back to the farm to unload and be washed, sorted or packed.

Three hours later, the barn is buzzing with activity. A small crew is running the tomato washer-a conveyor belt that carries the tomatoes through a spray of water and onto a sorting table where the waiting crew sorts and grades the fruit. Meanwhile, a few people are bagging salad greens and roots, getting them ready for sale the next day. The wash crew has stocked the clean vegetables in neat towers on wooden pallets that are placed in the cooler; the overnight cooling process helps maximize the freshness of the produce for the next day's market.

Getting ready for market is another dance requiring its own particular set of steps. I arrive at the farm at 5:30 a.m. The truck has been swept out and backed up to the loading dock, the back open, ready to receive the day's cargo. I start the carefully constructed loading process; years of loading the truck has shown us how to get everything on so that it fits and does not tip over en route.

The crates that are used to display our produce go in first, followed by the totes of veggies. Tables are loaded on one side of the truck, while tents and totes with bags, scale, signs, markers and other supplies are stored on the other. Additional display items are stacked in, followed by baskets of flower bouquets. Buckets of water are loaded along with a cooler of ice for keeping veggies fresh. These are followed by the sandbags, needed to anchor the corners of our two tents from the windstorms that are common at the Copley Square farmers market.  Chalkboard signs and a broom and dustpan for clearing our area finish off the cargo.

I stand on the edge of the truck and reach up to pull the door closed.  I grab the harvest log, the cash box and my coffee mug and climb into the driver's seat to begin my two-hour trek to Boston.

I spend most of the drive making calls, drinking my coffee and listening to NPR. As I near the city, my mind automatically switches to market mode. I glance at the market log and start to visualize the stand we will construct for today's market. I think about the vegetables in the back of the truck and which ones might be abundant and in need of their own space on the stand today.

I round the corner towards Copley Square and ease the 16-foot truck onto the plaza and point it towards Trinity Church. I put the truck in reverse and back up to our spot so that we have just enough room to unload without having to carry everything too far. I meet our two farmers market assistants and we immediately fall into our familiar routine, buzzing about the common as the city begins to wake up.

We set up the tents first and then unload everything as close to its final resting place as possible. I stay in the back of the truck and pull out the totes of produce, tables, bins and signs while the staff sets up tables and tablecloths and carries the produce to the front of the tables where they will be displayed. When everything is out of the truck, I jump out and take a table to set up.

Totes are emptied, displays of colorful cascades of veggies are constructed and overstock is pushed under the display. Signs, banners and price cards are set out; shopping bags are hung from the tents. The water sprayer is filled with ice water and the veggies are sprayed to begin the constant task of keeping them fresh. Customers start filing in to the stand and surveying the scene. We pick up the last of the empty totes, put final touches on the display and wrap sales aprons around our waists. We look at the big clock tower on the common: 10:55 a.m. Just in time for the 11 a.m. opening. And our day has just begun.

Two of us take our places behind the checkout table as the line begins to form and trail its way through the stand. The other person buzzes around the stand, placing the remaining price cards on baskets, tidying stray totes and helping customers with their questions.

On this particular day I am behind the checkout table. I love the rhythm of helping customers: making change, bagging produce. I greet each customer, many of them familiar faces. I do my best to remember names when I can, and after five years at the same market it is often like seeing old friends. I enjoy seeing the bouquet of veggies each customer has assembled and with each transaction I feel the satisfaction that comes from being proud of the food we are able to produce. It is a mutual feeling that always seems to create general goodwill at the checkout table. We talk about recipes, the farm, the weather, and in that moment relationships around food are born. This, I think, is the power of the farmers market.

Seven hours later, the Copley market officially closes. It's 6 p.m. and customers just getting out of work run to the stand to get the last of the veggies. We begin taking down the stand. I feel the familiar surge of energy as we weigh and pack the unsold produce, some destined for donation, others for the two-hour drive back to the farm. Tablecloths are folded, tables broken down and signs stowed in their appropriate tote.

I take my place back in the truck to arrange everything to withstand the journey home. We sweep up the kale leaves and garlic peels from the city pavement, toss them in the trash and, sighing, take a moment to say goodbye. Weary, but content with another productive day of sharing stories, recipes and veggies in the city, I climb into the truck and head home.

Sara Coblyn Porth co-owns Atlas Farm, a certified organic vegetable farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts with her husband, Gideon, and 1- year old daughter, Stella. She has a master's in Community Development and Applied Economics from the University of Vermont where for 8 years she developed and coordinated a youth gardening program; she has been involved in farms, farmers markets and education for 15 years.