In 1977, we were milking cows and John McPhee was selling produce. Our operation at the western end of the state was two years old; New York City’s Greenmarket, where McPhee was working for one of the grower/vendors, was only in its second year. I believe I first learned about the Greenmarket years later, when I read McPhee’s already anthologized description, “Giving Good Weight.” His tactile telling made the Greenmarket as wonderfully exotic to me as a market in Mexico or Morocco. And it was, indeed, a very different kind of agriculture than our dairying. We sold a commodity—differentiated from another farmer’s milk only by its percentage of butterfat. It left our farm in a shiny stainless tank truck, and arrived on somebody’s kitchen table in a plastic cottage cheese tub. We and the consumer were faceless to each other. In contrast, at the Greenmarket each basket of tomatoes was compelled to distinguish itself, to convince a shopper standing within a cornucopia that this particular tomato was worth its asking price. And the grower and the consumer were face-to-face, in encounters as vivid and pungent as McPhee’s prose.
Around 2006, after a two-decade detour through city careers, we returned to our now-cow-less farm, and we found that a weekly farmers’ market had sprouted in the circle in the center of our nearby village. It was, arguably, a distant off-spring of New York’s Greenmarket. The very concept of a farmers’ market, like restaurant tables on the sidewalk along Main Street, seemed a little foreign to our villagers, but they were gamely playing their part. And so it seemed natural to my wife, Lucia, to play a role as well. In that place she had once grown vegetables and children, and served the one to the other. With those children now fed out and grown up and moved away, the gardening and cooking were the activities with which Lucia built her new market identity. She sold prepared food that as much as possible incorporated our own veggies and fruits, or those grown as nearby as could be easily procured. Neither she nor I had ever worked in the restaurant business, so there was a steep learning curve. Nevertheless, over eight or nine seasons we slid a lot of plates across the counter to a lot of happy-looking eaters.
Each market Saturday started early: turning on the big coffee urns, loading food out of refrigerators into our truck and trailer, picking a couple bouquets for the tables. And then, pulling out of our driveway, we’d feel a comradeship with Garden State truck farmers gunning for the GW Bridge or the Lincoln Tunnel. The camaraderie of the vendors energized our set-up, and also our taking-down. Norm, the flower vendor with the longest drive, would often help us re-hook our trailer to our truck before hitting the road himself. But eventually, even with its sweet gypsy air, our little imitation of the mighty Greenmarket took more time and labor than we cared to give. So the “Catbird Griddle” sang its swan song, and we retired again to an easier occupation. This time it would be grain farming and milling.
The “Angelica Mill” does not have the face-to-face intensity of a farmers’ market. Much of the contact with potential retailers or consumers occurs over the computer. Only occasionally have I pitched our Tartary buckwheat flour directly to prospective buyers, bringing back the memories of my days on the griddle. However, this summer we finally made it to the Greenmarket at Union Square in Manhattan, perhaps the Ground Zero of this country’s famers’ market movement. We came as tourists or pilgrims. But we also arrived there as new vendors—arranging to sell our flour through the Greenmarket’s Regional Grains Project. It’s too soon to know how sales will go, but we feel proud just to appear on those shelves, on those streets. Move over, tomatoes!