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Farmers' markets bring food to the people, and people to downtown
By MERRY FIRSCHEIN
HASBROUCK HEIGHTS -- The lettuce nestled next to the broccoli, which sat in a red tub by the zucchini, yellow squash, and asparagus. Next to the basil, still sprinkled with Jersey soil, were snap peas, cool to the touch.
The outdoor display in Hasbrouck Heights attracted a steady stream of customers who greeted the two farmers behind it. A woman in a royal-blue pantsuit exclaimed, "Would you look at that zucchini!"
Hasbrouck Heights is one of 26 municipalities in New Jersey whose weekly farmers' markets, under the auspices of the New Jersey Council of Farmers and Communities, bring the makings of dinner straight from the fields. Customers say they couldn't be happier.
"Every time I see the farmer's truck, I stop," Lou Pelissier of Maywood said as he picked up broccoli, zucchini, and lettuce for his dinner. "You can't get them any fresher than this."
The farmers' markets make it easy for everyone, regardless of income, to add fresh fruits and vegetables to their diet. This year, more than 28,000 participants in the state's WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Farmers Market Nutrition Program will receive $20 in vouchers to be spent exclusively on the produce. Also this year, 21,000 low-income seniors will receive the vouchers, up from 1,000 in 2000.
The farmers' market in Hasbrouck Heights, at Boulevard and Washington Place, is run by the borough Chamber of Commerce. This is the second year that Hasbrouck Heights has run a market, held each Tuesday afternoon through Sept. 25.
"The borough has two of its 'own' farmers," said chamber President Tom Meli, referring to the two farmers who are contracted to supply the stand. "They grow the produce that the community wants. For instance, in Hasbrouck Heights there is a large population of Hispanics and Italians, so the farmers will grow things like eggplants and tomatoes and other things that these populations will enjoy and use."
Angie Iribarne, 12, visited the market last week with her mother, Marianela, who bought zucchini and basil.
"I like vegetables," the girl said, nodding emphatically. "The difference here is that it's fresh."
Her mother agreed.
"I grew up in Ecuador, and for me, [outdoor markets] are my roots," the Hasbrouck Heights resident said. "I was here last year, too."
Such community-based programs give New Jersey farmers much-needed revenue, agriculture officials say.
Farmland in New Jersey is steadily declining. In 1950 there were 26,900 farms in the state; in 1990, the last year for which comparable data were available, there were 8,100, according to the federal Department of Agriculture.
New Jersey is one of the top 10 producers of cranberries, blueberries, asparagus, spinach, sweet corn, and tomatoes, state Agriculture Department figures show.
The state is third in the Northeast, behind New York and Pennsylvania, in farm product sales, state figures show. Farming in New Jersey directly employs about 18,000 people.
"Selling retail is good for the farmers," said Diane Wood of the Madison-based Council of Farmers and Communities. "All produce sold at our markets comes directly from New Jersey farm families and goes straight to New Jersey families."
The state Agriculture Department works with the private council on the markets. The state's role is to give advice and direction and to get the message out to farmers about the markets, said Ron Good, agricultural marketing specialist.
"The goal is to bring fresh produce into communities and to assist small New Jersey family farms," Good said. "For some, their only income is selling at these markets."
Added farmer Bob Von Thun of Monmouth Junction: "We can cut the middleman out and sell to the public. We can give them a better price, and we do better too."
Von Thun, 35, this year was named New Jersey Young Farmer of the Year. He farms 90 acres of his own land, which has been in his family since 1913, and an additional 60 acres that he leases.
"The only way today to make money is through farmers directly retailing to the consumer," said George Asprocolas of Millstone Township, who also participates in the Hasbrouck Heights market.
"It's worth it financially," said Asprocolas, who has been farming his 12 acres since 1992. "People like to see fresh Jersey produce and to see the farmer bringing his produce to market."
The markets are good for local businesses, too. Last year, Hasbrouck Heights merchants noted an increase in business on Tuesdays, the day of the market, Meli said.
"We've definitely seen an increase in foot traffic," said Jimmy DeSimone, a manager at Gateway Realtors at 198 Boulevard.
"I'm here four years. Now that I see the stores being rented, hopefully [the market] will bring people out," said Barbara Verdonck, owner of Just For You gifts at 246 Boulevard.
Mayor William A. Torre echoed these sentiments.
"There's no question that
this was the intent of the Chamber of Commerce, to have increased foot traffic on the
Boulevard," Torre said. "This is a win-win situation for everyone."
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