The farmers behind the stands

Since its founding six years ago, the non-profit City Seed has sponsored five markets in New Haven, including Wooster Square.
Since its founding six years ago, the non-profit City Seed has sponsored five markets in New Haven, including Wooster Square. Photo by Emily Foxhall.

The farmers of Wooster Square located in the vacant lot at the intersection of Chapel Street and DePalma Court grind their boots in the snow as they patiently shift their weight back and forth. The men and women of the market keep their gloved hands shoved deep into their pockets as they shout to the customers who left their warm homes for fresh food despite the harsh winter weather.

The trees are bare, and many of the tables are emptier than usual. The market, full of energy in the spring, summer and fall, is subdued.

Offerings at the Wooster Square farmers’ market include maple butter and honey. The farmers’ market has grown in popularity over the years — vendors now have to apply to participate.
Offerings at the Wooster Square farmers’ market include maple butter and honey. The farmers’ market has grown in popularity over the years — vendors now have to apply to participate.
The Wooster Square farmers’ market is held every Saturday from May 1 through December 13, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
The Wooster Square farmers’ market is held every Saturday from May 1 through December 13, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

“The winter is definitely the low point for farms and it’s hard because they basically have to live off what they make over the summer,” CitySeed Market Manager Rachel Berg said. “But I think that winter farmer’s markets are very helpful.”

Wooster Square, often hailed as the best market in Connecticut, was the first of five that the non-profit CitySeed has established since its founding six years ago. The organization advocates for policy change relating to sustainable agriculture, sends out a weekly newsletter about food-related events and educates the community about farming.

Berg said she thinks establishing the markets has done the most good for the farming community of all the group’s activities. Providing a place for farmers to sell their goods year-round is essential, especially since winter is the most difficult season for many.

“I think the number one way that we help is just by providing a marketplace for them to sell their stuff,” she said.

The alley is lined with vendors, who arrive by 9 a.m. on the first and third Saturdays of every winter month, creating a long corridor of organic foods for customers to explore.

At last summer’s peak, 32 farmers offered a range of produce, from handmade goat cheese to spicy arugula, but in December the number hovered closer to 20, including the “holiday vendors” who sell organic soaps, arts and crafts, and other gifts at the market in the Christmas season.

For some, farming is a hobby, but others depend on their Saturday morning sales to pay the bills. The dairy and meat farmers have products year-round and rely on the market for the success of their business; some of the agricultural farmers have invested in green houses to lengthen their growing seasons. Many Wooster Square regulars work morning until night every day, and sell their wares at markets across Connecticut to make ends meet.

Berg said that although the number of customers in the winter is lower, those who come are a committed group.

“Ideally farmers could make money all year round,” she said. “I also think people just aren’t really aware of how difficult it is to farm and how much risk is involved, so they want to pay the lowest price, and that’s fine but that’s not necessarily the cost of producing the food. Until people are kind of willing to pay what needs to be paid so that farmers can live, I think that’s going to be a problem.”

While some of the market’s regulars make a comfortable living, others find themselves stretching to make ends meet. Still, every Saturday morning, they come together to create what many described as a vibrant, organic community.

MILK AND MORE

(Trinity Farm, Enfield, Conn.)

All 50 cows on the Smyth family’s Trinity Farm in Enfield, Conn. must be milked once at 4 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. every day.

The five children help their father, Michael Smyth, care for the animals, taking them outside to graze while the milk is pasteurized and bottled. Even one son, who became partially paralyzed after a 900-pound bale of hay rolled on top of him last year and severed his spinal cord, does his part brushing each cow and looking after the animals’ health.

Their mother, Dale Smyth, manages the Milk and More Store on their property, opening it at 6 each morning in case someone whizzing southbound down Highway 91 happens to notice the sign.

Dale attends the market in New Haven every Saturday, selling whole, 1 percent, skim, chocolate and coffee milk for $2.50 or $3.50 a quart, as well as yogurt, cream and butter, and during the winter holidays, Smyth’s family eggnog.

“Everybody gets yesterday’s milk!” she exclaimed in a December interview, emphasizing the freshness of her wares.

When she arrives at the market, Dale first stakes out her white tent. Health regulations require all who sell fresh fruit and vegetables to have one, and other vendors tend to use them because they catch the attention of those passing by.

Dale’s table is the first on the left as shoppers arrive. Market Manager Berg, who assigns the vendors their locations, gave her the spot near the sidewalk because she keeps her milk cool using ice, and Berg wanted it to be able to drain into the street as it melted rather than create a muddy puddle in the grass. By the time the market opens at 9 a.m. sharp, customers have lined up for Dale, some holding their empty glass milk bottles from weeks past. (The family purchases their glass milk bottles in Canada, and sometimes runs short, but enough are returned for a dollar by previous customers that having bottles is usually not a problem.)

“New Haven is the most encouraging market for a dairy farmer that there could ever be,” she said. “This is the most loyal market you’re ever going to know. I wouldn’t give anything to the children here that I wouldn’t give to my grandchildren.”

Though Dale always uses Sundays to rest, she took a week day off in December ­— her first in almost seven months. Her husband works seven days a week and can hardly spare a morning without giving his full attention to his cows. “Every family member puts their best and most into it.” Dale said. “It’s everything to us. First is God. Then comes the family, then the farm. I just don’t know what our family would be without the farm.”

A few years ago, the Smyths almost lost their land when the Connecticut government tried to convert the property into a rest stop for highway drivers. They were only able to end the fight when Congressman Joe Courtney intervened.

Still, the family faces the economic difficulty inherent in owning a small farm. The five children have chosen to help in varying degrees on the farm after graduating from college, and three of them have taken out loans to help pay outstanding fees that have built up over the years.

“The hardest part is the crushing debt,” Dale explained. “People don’t care where they get their food.”

BEE KEEPER

(Sugar Maple Farms, Lebanon, Conn.)

Jim Jahoda sounds like a broken record on Saturday mornings.

“Have you guys ever had our maple butter? Would you like a taste of honey?” he shouts, over and over.

The left half of Jahoda and his business partner Chuck Haralson’s table at the market is covered with plastic jugs of maple syrup and the right half with glass jars of honey, and maple candies and other miscellaneous items are lined between. The table also sports a plastic bumblebee — a good luck charm for the markets given to Jahoda by a customer — which holds down dollar bills to keep the wind from blowing them away. Maple butter is housed in a cooler at Jahoda’s side.

“Our honey’s good. And our syrup’s good. It sells itself,” Jahoda said. “You know what I always say: It’s not where it’s made, it’s who makes it.”

He said taste tests are the best thing about the farmer’s market.

With long wooden tasting sticks on hand, he dunks into a honey container and passes it over to a waiting customer.

“Wow. Holy crap,” the man responds.

Honey isn’t just honey — Jahoda has lots of advice on how to use his products.

The maple butter is a perfect glaze for salmon, he advises. He chews honeycomb like gum though another customer grates it on top of strawberries. The honey is beneficial for people with allergies and asthma because of its therapeutic values “reported since the time of the pharaohs.” Not to mention, it lasts forever. One customer needed 10 pounds of honey to make mead, while another had just consumed a pound in a variety of ways: on top of fish, mixed in with potatoes, and even stirred into whiskey.

“That’s what it’s all about!” he exclaimed. “One of the finer things in life, these good sweets. Enjoy yourself. It can only be good for you.”

For Jahoda, honey and maple syrup run in the family. His grandparents used to draw maple syrup from their trees in New Hampshire. He has since inherited their old flat pan for use in his own business.

The concepts behind beekeeping, Jahoda said, are pretty basic: pay attention to the bees and keep them healthy. In the spring, Jahoda and Haralson’s bees roam mostly among alfalfa and clover, though goldenrod and other flowering plants are also in the medley. He owns about 17 acres, but said bees are rumored to roam up to five miles from home base. He tries to avoid working on the hives on cloudy days when the bees hide inside; it’s best to do major work on a sunny, warm day when the insects are out in the field.

In the winter, Jahoda turns his focus to working on the maple syrup, heading into the woods to fix the tap lines and leaving his partner Haralson to take over their stand at the market. Though he has never counted how many tap lines they have, he estimated it is a couple thousand.

“It’s a lot of work. You know I work seven days a week. And I don’t take vacations,” he said. “It’s always in the back of your mind … That’s nothing unusual, you know, farmers work hard.”

They sell most, if not all, of their product each year and Jahoda said the demand is growing. They plan to have 30 hives this spring — more than ever before. He said he owes his success to the farmer’s market. Not wanting his business to grow much bigger, he said without the popularity of the markets they wouldn’t be able to stay afloat, as he currently doesn’t produce enough to sell wholesale.

“The investment is huge,” he said. “You can’t probably start up what I’ve got without a $30- or $40,000 investment. And that’s a lot of syrup to make and pay back.”

Two pounds of honey or a pint of maple syrup can be purchased for $15. Half a pound of maple butter costs $10. Pieces of maple candy sell for $1 each.

With plans for his farm to stay small, Jahoda said he hopes one day to retire from his teaching job so he can enjoy the work on the farm more.

“It’s not where you end up, it’s how you play the game along the way,” he said. ‘You’ve got to enjoy the road down the road. You’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing in the present. To always wait for the future is a joke. You’ve got to enjoy your life.”

‘ANYTHING TO MAKE A BUCK’

(Barberry Hill Farm, Madison, Conn.)

Kingsley Goddard became a farmer in 1987, and said he blames the choice on his “stupidity.”

He has a sarcastic sense of humor, but his comments are not completely jest. After his father’s death, Goddard needed to choose between maintaining his family’s land and continuing to teach English at a high school in East Hampton, Conn. He tried to balance both professions, but after receiving one too many phone calls reporting his sheep had escaped down Route 1, he opted to focus on the farm. By now, he jokes, he could be retired and with a pension. Instead, he manages 25 acres of farmland, along with sheep, cows and poultry.

“Anything to make a buck,” he said. “You’ve got to go out and do it whether you want to or not.”

Goddard is one of the more traditional agricultural farmers at the Wooster Square Market, selling primarily vegetables. His wiry frame and torn jeans suggest the existence of a less rosy side to the farming life.

With five kids between the ages of 7 and 24, Goddard’s family is eligible for food stamps, now referred to as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Not only did Goddard say his children help out on the farm, but they eat what they grow “whether they like it or not,” and he said he always has more bills to pay than he can manage. For example, he has to cover an additional $30 as winter begins in order to heat his greenhouse and grow tomatoes, and in the summer he hires between eight and 10 employees to help with the harvest.

Goddard attends five markets other than the one at Wooster Square year-round and operates a stand in Madison, Conn., on his farm. The Wooster Square Farmer’s Market may be the nicest he has been to. CitySeed is also involved in several programs that help his family’s financial situation.

Through the Community Supported Agriculture program, some of farmer’s market customers pay a set fee for a share in his farm at the beginning of the year, allowing them to pick up a prepared box of vegetables each week. Goddard said this has proved helpful in paying fees at the start of the season when he doesn’t have as much to sell, and also facilitates a connection between customers and his farm. This year, he sold 100 shares and he looks to have 120 next year.

NATURAL TREATS

(Nate’s Naturals, New Haven, Conn.; Best Buddy Biscuits, West Haven, Conn.)

Nathan ‘Nate’ Price has been making his signature “Granolus Rex” for at least 20 years.

A mixture of rolled oats, wheat germ, oat bran, almonds, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, honey, cinnamon and molasses, Granolus Rex was given out to Nate’s friends and family for years.

“Then we realized it was pretty good stuff,” he said.

He his wife Joanna Price stand under a tent labeled with the banner “Nate’s Naturals” in the middle of the market. The pair has been selling their granola at Wooster Square since 2008. Price sells his granola at three other markets, and it is included in the breakfast parfaits at Atticus Bookstore Café in New Haven. He hopes one day that the business will grow big enough for him to work on it full-time, but for now Price also works at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

The granola flavors include Toasted Orchard (baked with applesauce from Bishop’s Orchard), Crunchy Yankee (baked with locally produced maple syrup) and — his daughter’s favorite — Happy Jack (baked with pumpkin puree, pumpkin seeds, and pumpkin pie spice). Each is packaged and sold for $6.75 a bag, and currently Price estimates they have about 50 customers who come weekly to purchase some granola at Wooster Square.

At the other end of the market, Linda and Wayne Patenaude have to be careful to refer to their cleverly shaped cookies as “treats.” Not designed to please human taste buds, the Patenaudes’ creations are meant for dogs and cats.

Three years ago, when Linda applied to sell baked goods at the market, CitySeed initially told her that they already had that category sufficiently covered. She explained that she is already a “people chef” — she works in the Davenport College master’s house at Yale — but that she was trying something new at the market.

Proud owner of an Airedale terrier named Bailey, Patenaude uses all-natural ingredients such as whole grains, honey, vegetables and agave as she began to write and sample recipes for pet treats. All can be eaten by people, but none have salt or sugar.

“It’s not what’s in them, it’s what’s not in them,” she said.

She has also developed a recipe for carob chocolate brownies (some people buy these for themselves), and her husband Wayne has perfected the method for making beef jerky, which usually sells out within an hour.

Dogs who attend the market with their owners know Wayne because he will give them a pinch of jerky if he has any left.

“They’re the politest little beggars you’ve ever seen,” he said, tossing a piece of a treat to Cody, who had waddled up and placed his paws on Wayne’s shins.

And while Linda said business at the Wooster Square Market has been good, for her, the best benefits have been from the connections with the people she has met there.

The market closes at 1:00 p.m., but the farmers continue to chat with one another and their customers as they begin to pack their remaining wares back into their trucks. They will be back the Saturday after next to begin the routine again, greeting familiar faces and enticing new customers with fresh goods. As the market’s success attests, some people do actually care where they get their food.

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