Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Village Setting: Chester Sunday Market

I wasn't sure what to expect when I signed up for the Chester Sunday market. The market was brand new, and Chester's a small town. Would anyone show up? Would I be wasting every precious Sunday of the summer? But I'd heard that the organizer, Nancy Freeborn, had run a market in Chester in the past and had done an amazing job.

So I
went for it. And I'm so glad I did. This market is like no other I've ever been to, because it's like a mini-street festival right in the center of town. Or maybe I shouldn't say mini, because this market has well over 20 vendors set up along both sides of the main street. And it is bustling. Even when the weather has been less than perfect, people come out by the hundreds for this market.

I'm not sure which I'm more impressed with, the farmers market itself or downtown Chester. I'd never been to Chester before, and somehow I'd gotten the impression that it was, I don't know, a little snooty or conservative or something. I couldn't have been more wrong. It's definitely more affluent than New London, but it's also artsy, liberal, full of community, with a strong base of people who believe in supporting local businesses and local farmers. Some of my customers in Chester have told me that there are a lot of community events in this village--music festivals, barbecues, etc. People take the time to get to know one another here.

Why do some places seem to foster community while others foster isolation? Maybe Chester
works because of the centralized downtown, and because local developers--in particular Michael Joplin--took pains to ensure that the downtown buildings would be owned by people who were either living or running businesses in town. This town isn't marred by absentee landlords. And, too, if you've ever read a book on contemporary town planning, you'd recognize that, whether by accident or design, Chester is perfect: mixed use buildings, parking hidden in back of the shops, town house style store facades right up against the wide sidewalks.

And so this market had a huge head start, being located in a town where people already valued community and local economies. Even so, it's an amazing success. It was a brilliant idea to hold this market in the heart of downtown rather than in a nearby parking lot, even though town officials were initially worried about traffic flow and emergency vehicle access. People have so much to look at and enjoy here: the vendors' displays full of berries, greens, artisan bread, raw milk, exquisite jewelry and indie fashion--but also the independently-owned shops and cafes and perfect New England architecture. And each other! People tend to come here when the market opens, and stay for hours chatting with the folks they run into.

I've said less than usual about the vendors at this market, but that's only because I'm usually so busy that I haven't had time to check them all out. But I know there is a vast array of produce, cut flowers, cheeses, local meats and breads--and absolutely nothing that might qualify as junk. A higher percentage of vendors have organic produce here than at my other markets. And there is also live music every week, all of which has been excellent.

The Chester Sunday Market runs from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. through mid-October. This week is
the Peach festival! For directions and more info, visit www.chestersundaymarket.com

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Pastoral Setting: Lyme Farmers Market at Ashlawn Farm

What makes for a great farmers market? The mix of vendors is key, but what else? What is it about a market that turns shopping from a chore into an occasion?

At the Lyme Market at Ashlawn Farm, location is everything. Set in a field downhill from a 300-year old farm house, with panoramic views of pastures, horses and cows, this market is as bucolic as it gets.

I grew up in a setting like this, in dairy country in upstate New York. So maybe that's why, even though I'm going to work, I feel so peaceful when I drive to this market. Or maybe it's because, now that I live in a small city, vending here feels like a mini-vacation.

But here's a funny thing about this location: if you live in the city, a trip to Ashlawn is a way to get away from it all. But if you live in the country, a trip to Ashlawn becomes a way to connect with your neighbors. One thing I remember about growing up in a town where a walk around the block is a five mile hike is the isolation. You don't just bump into people walking to the post office or the local coffee shop. You don't say "hi" very often in a day. So anything that brings people together is extra sweet and extra appreciated. (The dogs like getting together, too.)

Besides building community and connecting farmers with customers, the Lyme market meets another need: the preservation of CT's farms. Of course, all farmers markets do this by connecting farmers with customers. But the Lyme market also helps preserve the farm on which it's located.

Ashlawn Farm has been in the same family for 100 years. But the current owners, Chip and Carol, didn't plan on or know anything about farming. Chip was a financial planner and Carol was a teacher. But when Chip's elderly uncle Sam was about to lose the farm, they stepped in and bought it. Now they're raising their family here. And the market--along with their coffee-roasting business and the leasing of pasture--helps generate the income they need to keep the farm alive.

But the best location in the world wouldn't work if Chip didn't pull in some great vendors. At Lyme Market you'll find organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, goat cheese, cut flowers, potted plants and seedlings, breads, local beef, soaps and body care products (mine!), jams, jewelry, locally sewn items made from hand-printed fabrics, and the most wonderful truffles I've ever eaten. There's also plenty of ready-made food available: breakfast sandwiches with local eggs and sausage, hamburgers from local beef, shrimp spring rolls with Thai basil, Voodoo Grill, Ashlawn Farm's own coffee (I especially like their iced coffee, cold-brewed for twelve hours) and--my favorite--a vendor with raw vegan treats like cilantro lemonade, pressed salad, vegan "sushi" and raw chocolate with goji berries.

The Lyme market at Ashlawn farm runs Fridays 3:00-6:00 and Saturdays 9:30-12:00 until at least mid-October, possibly later if the weather is kind. I'm there on Saturdays. The market will be closed Saturday, July 25th.