‘It’s always an adventure when you shop at the farmer’s market. You never know what type of vegetables or fruit you will find,” says Lorette Pruden, market manager for the Montgomery Township Farmer’s Market. “But you are sure to find fresh food, locally grown and sold by local people.”

The Montgomery Township market is sponsored by the New Jersey Council of Farmers and Communities, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing farmers and their products together with local retail customers. The Montgomery Township Farmers Market is open every Thursday from June to October, from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the parking lot of the Princeton North Shopping Center, on Route 206, just north of the Research Park office center. For more information on the market call 908-359-9665.

There are 35 council-sponsored markets throughout the state and dozens of other farmers markets also spring up this time of year, one in almost every community in the state, says Pruden. The difference between markets sponsored by the council and some of the other markets, she says, is the guarantee that at a council-sponsored market all of the products are grown by New Jersey farmers.

“You won’t find oranges at a council market in any season,” she says, “and you won’t find tomatoes in May and June. You will find whatever is growing locally and it will be fresh. The Council markets feature locally-grown products, not something that has been bought and trucked in from somewhere else.”

Pruden became market manager, a part-time paid position, at the Montgomery Township market about halfway through its first season, in 2003. When not selling produce and serving on the board of directors of the Council, she has a full-time business as a consultant with clients ranging from corporations to small businesses and professionals. She specializes in strategic planning, teamwork, and personal and professional goal-setting and development.

Pruden was interested in the market because of her own family background. Her father lives on the family farm where she was raised in North Carolina, and other family members also farm in that area. “I understand the needs of the farmers,” she says. “They are businesspeople who need to sell their products and they need support from the local community just like any other business.”

The farmer’s market is an opportunity for farmers to sell their products at retail prices, rather than wholesale. Not only does it give them the opportunity to sell some of their products at higher prices, but it also affords them an opportunity to meet and talk with their customers. For the small farmer who does not produce enough to sell wholesale, it is a way to stay in the farming business.

Caroline Phiney, a teacher at the Waldorf School of Princeton as well as a certified organic farmer, is one example, of the type of farmer who needs the small, retail market. Phiney farms just a few acres on Cherry Hill Road in Montgomery Township. She does not produce enough to sell her products wholesale to large supermarkets. “She is a small, local businessperson who needs support from the local community,” says Pruden.

In addition to helping farmers find a market, Pruden says she also wanted her own children and family to “reconnect with our food supply in a way that doesn’t happen when you are pushing your cart through the ShopRite.

“Yes, we can now buy strawberries in January, but they’ve been shipped from South America or somewhere and they just don’t taste the same as freshly-picked fruit,” she says. Finally, she mentions, that the farmer’s market promotes a sense of community. “Montgomery is like a lot of townships in this area,” she says. “It doesn’t have a central shopping area or gathering place where people can meet, get together and get to know each other. The farmer’s market fills that need.”

While buying and selling local produce may be what brings people to the shopping center parking lot on Thursday afternoons, they stay to talk to old neighbors and meet new friends. “I’ve met more people from this township in the last four summers than I’ve met in the previous 20 years,” says Pruden. “People spend a few minutes shopping, then stay 30 or 45 more minutes just to talk. Township officials come to shop, then stay to talk to the people in the community.”

Some weeks the market also offers local entertainment as an added incentive for people to stay, chat, and buy. “It’s a tiny, community building seed,” says Pruden. “People aren’t in a rush at the farmer’s market. They come with a different mindset.”

But running the market also has its challenges, says Pruden. It is difficult to find the right mix between customers and farmers, she says. “If there aren’t enough customers, the farmers won’t come. If there aren’t enough farmers with a variety of products, the customers won’t come.”

The Montgomery Township market “in some ways has been a victim of its own success,” she says. “When we first started four years ago there weren’t any other markets around.” Now neighboring communities have opened similar markets, and some operate on the weekends, which are more popular shopping days than Thursdays. Also, more farmers now have stands on their own properties, where they can sell to local customers without the bother of loading their products on a truck, driving to the market, unloading, then repeating the process with the unsold goods at the end of the day.

Customers who come to the market when it first opens in early June may also be discouraged by the lack of variety and may not return later in the summer when more produce is available. She says that the customers need to understand that the rhythms of the market follow the rhythms of the natural growing season.

By the end of July, depending of course on rainfall and sunshine, there should be some fresh corn and some early tomatoes, along with lots of peaches and blueberries. In August the corn really comes into its own, as do the state’s justly famous tomatoes — in a wide array of varieties. As summer draws to an end, apples will begin to appear, and will continue to be on display right up until December most years.

The market doesn’t just offer produce, however. The Griggstown Quail Farm produces quail, pheasant, turkey, and other poultry products, and is a regular at the market. Fresh breads are sold by the Village Bakery of Lawrenceville and asparagus salsa and Peruvian-style biscotelli, also made in New Jersey, are sold at the market. Pruden is now on the prowl for someone who makes fresh cheeses.

“There is some perception that if we sell organic produce and specialty breads and cheeses we are selling ‘Yuppie food’ that is expensive and indulgent,” she says. “But we really aren’t.” It is true, however, that some of the market items are more expensive than similar items at the grocery store. Other items just can’t be found there. The markets sell a variety of things, both organically grown and “traditionally” grown produce. Most of the farmers also accept WIC and senior citizens’ coupons, she says. “That is one of the ways the state helps farmers.”

Even if the prices are higher, Pruden says it is worth it. “Shopping at the farmers markets supports the continuation of a healthy, local food supply. It supports community spirit, and it supports local businesses.”

And, really, is a cottony tomato from a faraway state a bargain at any price? And is there any equal to a just-picked ear of Jersey sweet corn?

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