Choose your favorite agricultural simile to complete this sentence: Over the last several years seasonal farmers markets in our area have (a) sprouted like mushrooms after a heavy rain; (b) blossomed like the flowers in spring; (c) spread like weeds in a suburban lawn; (d) grown bigger right under our eyes, like corn; or (d) ripened into maturity like our incomparable Jersey tomatoes. All are apt, as there is now a well-established farmers market in operation virtually every day of the week somewhere along the Route 1 corridor.

As usual, our area and our state reflect national trends. The USDA reports that more than 4,500 farmers markets operated across the country in 2007, up from 2,800 in 2000, and by 2006 they accumulated about $1 billion in sales annually. The Garden State alone has more than 100 markets this year.

For most purposes farmers markets, sometimes called greenmarkets, are defined as being held out of doors, in public spaces, and consisting at minimum of several farmers selling their products directly to the public. They are commonly the results of grassroots efforts, often with the support, financial and otherwise, of the home municipality and its businesses. In our area, most are held once a week during the growing season, of which we are currently in the midst. In fact, this week — officially August 3 through 9 — is National Farmers Market Week.

The growth and popularity of farmers markets can be attributed to several factors. First and foremost is taste. Most produce sold is locally grown and picked ripe just hours before coming to market. Such freshness also helps preserve the nutritional value of many fruits and veggies. Plus, heirloom varieties are often part of the mix, and many people (me included) believe these varieties have more flavor. Most markets offer at least some produce that is organically or sustainably grown, as well as meat, poultry, and dairy products from animals that are raised humanely and on pasture — practices that help preserve the health of our soil and the cleanliness of our water. (An additional benefit was recently realized with the national outbreak of salmonella that was subsequently linked by federal authorities to Serrano peppers and before that, tomatoes. New Jersey tomatoes and peppers were never suspect.)

Shoppers value the direct, personal interaction they have with the farmers and food artisans who make up the bulk of vendors selling produce, meat, poultry, cheese, eggs, honey, baked goods, flowers, ice cream, coffee, prepared foods, and more. Farmers dispense information on how to store and prepare their output and, if asked, even share family recipes for old-timey dishes like succotash (thanks, Jill of Cranbury’s Stults Farm) and new-agey dishes like pasta with garlic scapes (thanks, gal at North Slope Farm).

The most successful markets, like the ones in Lawrenceville and West Windsor, become de facto community centers where neighbors socialize in a leisurely, festive, open-air setting. Many feature live music, cooking demonstrations, crafters, and special events, increasing their appeal to children and adults.

Our farmers markets also pump money back into the local economy, help keep small farms in business and in the family, and preserve the farmland of the Garden State, which improves the quality of life for all of us 8 million residents. As Peter Hoffman, activist chef and owner of Savoy restaurant in New York, said about farmers markets in general in the August issue of Bon Appetit, “Money stays local, our outlying regions can remain agriculturally productive, and the landscape is preserved.” On average, wares travel no more than 50 miles from where they were grown or raised, so an additional benefit is, in some cases, reduced pollution and waste. Plus, many shoppers bring their own reusable bags, furthering the cause.

A knock often heard against shopping at farmers markets is cost. But as New Jersey secretary of agriculture Charles Kuperus points out, “Consumers can now add price as a compelling reason to spend as much of their food dollar as possible on items grown and harvested right here in New Jersey. With today’s high fuel costs, the longer any product travels, the more cost there is added to the final price.” Beyond that, I have found that with no middleman and particularly at the glut of the season for a particular crop — say corn or summer squash — prices can be lower than at local retailers.

Elitism has been another bugaboo. Yet markets now operate in our state’s most urban, inner-city sectors, and a federal program administered by the states makes farmers market voucher/checks available for needy seniors and those in the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) nutrition program. For 2008, this amounts to just over $1,170,000 in New Jersey — not a huge amount but a step in the right direction. More and more markets are accepting food stamps, as well.

Following are snapshots of most of the farmers markets operating in our area, arranged in rough geographic order beginning with those closest to the U.S. 1 offices on Roszel Road. This growing season the only day of the week that doesn’t see a farmers market operating in our neck of the woods, as far as I can tell, is Monday. But keep in mind that many of the farms that are a presence in many of the weekly markets, such as Terhune Orchards, Cherry Grove Organic Farm, and Griggstown Quail Farm, also operate markets at their farms. C&M Produce Company, an outgrowth of Catalpa Farm, which participates in the Montgomery market, owns and operates two retail stores: the Kingston Farm Market and Maple Tree Farms in North Brunswick.

With our state’s harvest season at its peak from now through October, these markets will be overflowing with our best and freshest peaches, nectarines, pears, plums, beets, broccoli, cucumbers, eggplant, lima beans, melons, okra, peppers, potatoes, squash, and, of course, those emblematic Jersey tomatoes.

West Windsor Community Farmers Market, Princeton Junction Train Station, Southbound, Vaughn Drive Parking Lot off Alexander Road. May 10 to October 25, Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. 609-577-5113 or www.westwindsorfarmersmarket.org.

This market, now in its fifth year, greets as many as 800 visitors each week and was recently featured in the New York Times. In many ways it represents how successful farm markets come into existence: in this case, as the result of dogged efforts by residents Beth Feehan and Mireille Delman, who enlisted the support of the township, wrangled permission to locate in a public space (the parking lot at the Princeton Junction station), and have received the financial support of local businesses (including banking, realty, and investment firms). Co-founder Feehan is a constant presence. She believes that successful markets are those that have “thought through the needs of the community they’re serving and have found the right mix of vendors.”

This one’s mix comprises nine farms, some organic, among its 15 regular vendors — including local favorites Cherry Grove Organic Farm (which sells its meats and cheeses), Griggstown Quail Farm, North Slope, and Terhune Orchards. This season the market added Stults Farm, Crescent Moon Organic Coffee Roasters from Mickelton (Mullica Hill), Condiment Man of Skillman’s line of bottled hot sauces, and Olsson’s Fine Foods — a longtime and continuing anchor of the Trenton Farmers Market, here serving up handmade ice cream and fresh lemonade. Big draws are Shore Catch, which offers fresh, local fish from Viking Village in Point Pleasant and Twisted Tree Cafe, which sells very good vegan soups, baked goods, and bottled dressings and spreads from their eatery in Asbury Park.

The market features live music most weekends. The next big special event is an environmental fair on Saturday, September 20. (Visit www.greeningwestwindsor.com for details). In addition to the usual prepared food vendors, Nomad Pizza of Hopewell and the Whole Earth Center of Princeton will be on hand.

Whole Foods Farmers Market, 3495 Route 1 South, West Windsor. Alternate Thursdays beginning June 12 and ending September 18 (i.e., 8/7, 8/21, 9/4, 9/18), alternate Thursdays as above, 3 to 7 p.m. 609-799-2919.

Now in its second year, this small market takes place in the parking lot in front of the store. It draws farms, prepared food vendors, and crafters mainly from outside the immediate area. It’s still finding its legs, so vendors fluctuate from week to week. Hlubik Farms in Chesterfield and Pineland Farms of Hammonton should be constants. Not to be missed are the barbecued meats cooked up by the store’s prepared foods manager, Ron Spada, who uses a smoker designed and built by him and his father. Smoked pulled pork and ribs are big favorites, but the smoked half chicken ($7) is nothing short of a revelation.

Venture inside the store, into the produce department, to find a rare produce treasure that absolutely cannot be had at any farmers market in the area. Simply seek out the signs and labels announcing the produce of Muth Family Farm in Williamstown, Gloucester County, New Jersey. Farmer Bob Muth, a bona fide leader in sustainable agriculture in this area, has figured out how to do something experts said could never be done in New Jersey: grow strawberries and corn organically.

Whole Foods’ produce manager Dan Langlois calls Muth “an awesome organic farming guru. We get all his stuff, and it’s phenomenal.” In August and beyond look for Muth organic melons, tomatoes (including heirlooms), eggplant, and squash. (Note: Muth Farm produce is also carried by the Whole Earth Center in Princeton, which was itself a pioneer more than 35 years ago when it brought organic, and now local and organic, produce to the area.)

Greening Princeton Farmers Market, Firestone Library/Chapel Plaza at Princeton University. Fall session runs Tuesdays, September 16, through October 21, plus special Thanksgiving market on November 25. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 609-258-5144 or www.princeton.edu/greening/market.

A recent trend and heartening development is the flourishing of markets on university campuses, often established and run by student chapters of the Slow Food movement. Last fall saw the triumphant inauguration of the Greening Princeton market on the plaza by Firestone Library, managed by student volunteers and organized by Katherine Andersen, ‘08, and Ruthie Schwab, `09. The market was in full swing this past spring and will return for a fall run in September. Of special note: it will hold a Thanksgiving market on November 25, when most other markets have ceased operating for the season.

Just above every highly regarded farm adjacent to Princeton participates, including Honey Brook Organic Farm, whose CSA (community supported agriculture) program is so successful that it rarely steps out. A-list vendors include Small World Coffee, Bent Spoon, and Witherspoon Bread. Valley Shepherd, a regular at many of the farmers markets, is here too, with its highly regarded sheep’s and cow’s milk cave-aged cheeses, sheep milk yogurt, lamb, and ricotta ravioli packed by Lucy’s Ravioli Kitchen.

Lawrenceville Farmers Market, 16 Gordon Avenue (just off Route 206 South). Sundays, June 8 to October 26 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. 609-206-0344 or www.lawrencevillemainstreet.com.

Is there anyone left in the area who is not familiar with Mikey Azzara, the dynamo behind this market? Now in its fourth season, it has become a Sunday morning meeting place for locals, who come not only for the thoughtful selection of farm products and prepared foods, but also for the weekly music and cooking demos, the latter sponsored, appropriately, by a local business: Mrs. G TV & Appliance. The prestigious Lawrenceville School, a neighbor just across Route 206, also sponsors the market, which is a true civic affair.

It’s also a personal affair, what with Mikey’s dad, brother, and close friends helping set up tents at 7 a.m. each week and his inamorata, Emily Suzuki, selling jars of bread-and-butter pickles made using her grandmother’s recipe and prepared in the kitchen of nearby Chambers Walk Cafe. Azzara has enlisted the cafe’s owner, Mario Mangone, to be a regular chef-demonstrator, as is Chambers Walk alumnus David Ercolano, now with Small World. He even co-opted the local Girl Scout troop to provide children’s activities.

Vendors new to the market this year are Davidson’s Exotic Mushrooms — fresh cremini, shiitakes, and portabellas from Kennett Square — and Hlulik’s Farm, which Azzara says has received rave reviews from his regular customers.

Like Beth Feehan of West Windsor, Azzara believes that the right vendor mix is critical. He also realizes the importance of establishing rules and guidelines when it comes to vendor selection, including the quality of their wares, their variety, and limits in terms of geography. A golden rule of most but not all farmers markets is that farms sell only what they produce.

Last year, when Azzara discovered that one of the farms was selling fruit marked “Product of California,” he immediately dropped them. Many markets stipulate in their charter that crafters are not allowed in the mix, and this is one. “Township officials felt strongly that they wanted to support agricultural interests in town, that this was the focus, and I understand that,” Azzara says.

He also says that live music — one week jazz, another blues or bluegrass — is a big draw, adding to a party atmosphere and keeping some customers there for two hours at a time. Upcoming special events include an Iron Chef-style competition in September.

Trenton Farmers Market, 960 Spruce Street (next to Halo Farms). Open year-round. May through October hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. 609-695-2998 or www.thetrentonfarmersmarket.com

For many years only this venerable covered market, which has been around since 1948 and which operates year-round, fulfilled the farm market mission in our area. I like that it has barely changed with the times, although a wider selection of organic produce would not be amiss. Its conventional produce comes courtesy of longstanding family farms — many from the rural areas surrounding Hightstown — and the prices can’t be beat.

To me the anchors are not the farms, but rather Olsson’s Fine Foods and Cartlidge’s Quality Meats. Olsson’s changed hands 18 months ago, but the new owners, husband and wife team Rudie and Jennifer Smit, have kept the amazing selection of 200 cheeses and expanded the already impressive variety of gluten-free and European specialty foods.

Recent additions include Griggstown poultry and sausages, as well as those of D’Artagnan, and the handmade ice cream and lemonade that they also sell at the West Windsor market. Also new are upcoming demonstrations by their vendors, including Muirhead of Ringoes, which recently introduced a line of wine jellies made with wine from nearby Unionville Vineyards.

New to the market this season is Vitella & Sons, which recently replaced Porfirio’s. Frank Vitella, who operated Paisano’s restaurant in Hamilton years ago, sells Italian cheeses and salumi, groceries, sandwiches, and prepared foods. A rare find on one visit was a quart of his fresh, homemade crab-flavored tomato sauce, which brought me right back to my Italian-American childhood.

Many of my favorite sellers are only at the market from Thursday to Saturday, so I limit my visits to those days. Other musts for me among the 40 or so vendors here hawking everything from fresh roasted nuts to tube socks and wigs: the homemade tamales available only on Saturdays from El Tepeyac, and, across the parking lot, picking up a pint of Halo Farm Mocha Chip ice cream (only $2 a quart on my most recent visit).

Each month sees a Jersey Fresh celebration at the market. Saturday, August 9, for example, is Peach Day, with free pieces of cake smothered with peaches and topped with whipped cream doled out from 10 a.m. until supplies run out. Saturday, August 23, is melon day, and on Saturday, September 27, expect a bowl of sliced apples topped with warm caramel and (optional) crushed peanuts.

Capital City Farmers Market, East State Street, the Commons, Warren & Broad streets, Trenton. Thursdays, July 10 to September 25, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 609-393-8998 or www.trenton-downtown.com.

As much street fair as farmers market, this summer-only enterprise of the Trenton Downtown Association has been in swing, literally, since 1993. Live music, including really good local musicians, brings hundreds of state office workers to this lunchtime party for soul, rock, R & B, blues, reggae, smooth jazz — you name it. East State Street between North Broad and South Warren gets closed to traffic for the duration, while soul food vendors and local crafters — many with ethnic flair — take over.

Oh yes: there are two farms selling produce, which is a delight to see in the middle of this most urban of cityscapes. Colonial Farm Market offers baked goods as well as produce from all over (including table grapes from California), while Millstone’s Asprocolas Acres offers Jersey Fresh produce from around the state. Baked goods, organic coffees and teas, a young psychic, and community services groups add to the festivities. Howard’s Place serves up delicacies like whiting sandwiches and meat loaf with gravy and cornbread, but the longest lines are at Maxine’s, where jerk chicken, curry chicken, and meat patties are served with sides like rice and peas, collards, cabbage, and mac and cheese.

George Asprocolas and his farm are also involved in another venture: the revitalization of the venerable Tri-County Cooperative Auction in Hightstown. The wholesale auction has been around since 1931, and currently has about 75 grower members. What’s new is that they are experimenting with selling their wares directly to the general public from the back of their trucks before the wholesale auctions start every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. The experiment is just getting off the ground, and so far the only farm committed to being there at the appointed hours is Asprocolas. For more information call 609-448-0193.

Montgomery Farmers Market, the Village Shopper, Route 206 South, 2/10th of a mile north of Route 518, Skillman. Saturdays, June 21 to October 18, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. 908-359-9665 or www.montgomeryfriends.org.

After several years of struggling at a less-than-ideal location on Thursday afternoons, this petite market is getting a second wind with a change of scenery and a move to Saturdays. On a recent visit I picked up pale yellow sweet peppers called Ivories from C&M Produce, pristine apricots (Jersey grown!) from Tree-licious Orchards, garlic scapes from Skillman’s Orchard Farm Organics, a gorgeous bouquet of flowers from Bloomin’ Acres, and a fennel-raisin semolina loaf from Village Bakery in Lawrenceville.

Owners of the bakery, Karen and Bo Child, win the prize for participating in the most markets in this survey. After running into Bo for the umpteenth time on my rounds for this survey, I joked, “We have to stop meeting this way.”

This market is another example of a dedicated, persistent citizens’ group, in this case the Montgomery Friends of Open Space, making it a reality, and you will spot them helping out behind the stands.

Hopewell Community Farmers Market, the Train Station, off Greenwood Avenue. Wednesdays, May 28 to October 29, 2 to 7 p.m. 609-466-8330 (North Slope Farm).

Mike Rassweiler of North Slope Farm in Lambertville, a leader in the organic agriculture movement in our area, who has mentored many of the young farmers now operating here, is the driving force behind this small market, which pops up in front of Hopewell’s picturesque erstwhile railway station each Wednesday.

In addition to his farm’s impeccable produce, shoppers can score goodies from Olsson’s Fine Foods, Lawrenceville Bakery, Griggstown Quail Farm, and Cherry Grove Organic Farm.

Rutgers Gardens Farmers Market, Rutgers Gardens, 112 Ryders Lane (Just off Route 1), New Brunswick. Fridays, May 23 to October 31, 2 to 6 p.m. www.rutgersgardens.rutgers.edu (click on “events”).

Paul Valetutti, a food science/culinology major at Rutgers University, is the energetic force behind this just-debuted market, and it has hit the ground running. The Cook College junior has an impeccable food pedigree: not only is he the president of that university’s Slow Food chapter, he is a member of the family that is behind the highly regarded New York sausage and charcuterie company, Salumeria Biellese.

In addition to producers that can be found at many other markets in our area — Griggstown Quail Farm, Village Bakery, Valley Shepherd Creamery, for example — Rutgers Garden’s has several stellar ones that I encountered nowhere else. Foremost among them is the Readington River Buffalo Company, which raises bison in Hunterdon County. In general I find buffalo meat (also called bison) tastier than beef, and if the cuts I bought are any example, theirs is exceptional. (This vendor also participates in the Flemington Farmers Market on Sunday mornings, which takes place at the Dvoor Farm in Raritan.)

Also unique to this market are terrific Polish prepared foods of Stephan & Son and cut flowers by Rutgers Gardens. Farms include Woodland Produce of Fairtown and Fruitwood Farms of Monroeville (which accepts VISA and MasterCard!).

Pat Tanner is a Princeton-based freelance food writer. She is the restaurant critic for New Jersey Life magazine. Her reviews can be found at www.newjerseylife.com.

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