To Market, To Market

When Kirsti Marella, a Binghamton native who now lives in New Hampshire, returned to Central New York to visit her sister, the visitor, accompanied by her husband and three children, stopped at the Ithaca Farmers Market to do some shopping. She was impressed: “It’s a great market. The food was great, and we bought an art piece, flowers and some nice grapes and apples. We had a good time.”

What really impressed Marella, it seems, was the service she got at the market while buying the items. “The people at the apple stand really knew their apples,” she recalled. “They let you taste them, and they told you which ones were good for what purposes. You were talking to the growers, they had a lot of information and they took a real interest in the apples.”

At the Ithaca Farmers Market, it’s not at all unusual to find that kind of service and information. In fact, the market requires that all of the agricultural produce, prepared food and craft items be produced by the vendors, and those products have to be grown or crafted within 30 miles of the market. Those vendors know their products, and, according to many shoppers, don’t hesitate to share their information and expertise.

The stand at which Marella bought her apples happens to be run by Jackie and Ian Merwin, who own Black Diamond Farm in Trumansburg. Ian Merwin is a professor of horticulture and an active research scientist at Cornell University. Along with other fruit, the Merwins grow 65 varieties of eating apples and another 30 used for hard cider. The Black Diamond stand is known for offering obscure antique apples sought by passionate lovers of the fruit.

And that’s where the education comes into play at the Merwins’ stand. “Right from the start we had weird apples, and that’s because of what my husband does for a living,” Jackie Merwin laughed. “People didn’t know them so I thought, ‘Boy, I’d better give them tastes.’ Now I think a lot of people approach it like a wine tasting. When they taste the apples, I’m pretty sure they’re going to like them.” Merwin said she cuts up about 30 apples for tasting on a typical sales day.

Located on the eastern bank of the Cayuga Inlet, the Ithaca Farmers Market features 88 stalls serving, on a day-by-day basis, more than 150 agricultural, prepared food and craft vendors. Under state agriculture marketing rules, 60 percent of the market must be comprised of agricultural products. The remainder is devoted to an international array of lunch items and other prepared foods and an impressive assortment of crafts.

Opened in 1973 on land adjacent to the Agway store in Ithaca, the farmers market led a rather nomadic existence for its first 15 years. The market moved to an old airport runway near the Hangar Theater, then traveled to an empty lot on Ithaca’s West End, followed by a trek up to a Cornell University parking lot and then back down to a lot on the city’s North Side. Finally, in 1988, construction – by volunteer labor – began on a pavilion at the market’s present location.

The inlet site, called Steamboat Landing after the tour boats that docked there in the 19th century, proved to be the winner for the market. The venue has grown steadily over the years and now draws thousands of local shoppers and out-of-town tourists each weekend during the summer and fall. Crowds of market visitors stroll through the pavilion checking out vendors’ latest offerings. Many find their way down to the popular landing to hear market-sponsored area musicians and find seating by the water to enjoy tasty lunches.

Bill and Tammy McDonough of Shelton, Connecticut, got their introduction to the market when friends they were visiting in Ithaca took the couple and their three children there for a morning’s exploration. “It was a blast – we loved it,” Bill McDonough said. “The atmosphere was great, and it was the sort of place where you felt you didn’t have to have your kids on a leash. It ended up being almost a whole-day adventure, and we never ran out of things to look at and do. The kids never got bored.”

McDonough said he especially liked the produce. “The vegetables were great, and the people at the stalls wanted to talk to you and find out what you were looking for. I enjoyed talking with the growers,” he said. “We were impressed with the variety of stuff they had there,” Tammy McDonough added. “And the food was great. We had the flatbread – that was fantastic.”

That flatbread, of course, was made by Leslie Muhlhahn and her crew, who operate the Just Desserts stall at the market and bake their highly popular pizzas in a unique wood-fired “oven-on-wheels.”

Despite the recession, “this is the best year ever – by a long shot,” Muhlhahn noted. She said she is selling upwards of 250 flatbreads and 200 loaves of baguettes and loaves of artisan bread on an average market day. “I think when people feel they can’t take a vacation in Europe, they’ll take several mini-vacations, and they come here for the weekend and spend some money because they’re not going to France,” the chef said.

“The market offers a quality experience,” Muhlhahn noted. The setting is gorgeous; it’s a really great place to shop.”

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by Bill Wingell

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