Monday, March 3, 2014

Reprise: To market, to market

Planting garlic at Frog Holler.
I've no photos from the Ann Arbor farmer's market, so this will have to do!
As we pack up this chapter of our lives, I'm feeling a bit sentimental. Usually we go home in February to see friends and family, but this year we stayed put to have time to wrap things up. My farming life is changing once again, and so I ventured back in time to one of the places that truly inspired me and taught me a great deal about the everyday workings of this growing life. I'll always be grateful. Written in 2008 just before we came to Japan, this is a bit of a window into that time and what I was up to. It was such good fun! - JB

While it was still fresh in my memory, I wanted to recount a usual trip in to the Farmer's Market as a vendor. It's been a great summer, and market is easily one of my favorite parts. While I did tire at times of people asking for plastic bags to go in their canvas bags or wincing at a fair price for an organic potato, I still loved it and am a little sad I won't be going next week. It's an amazing experience and so much fun.

I get picked up a little bit after 5am in the rumblely truck, and we make our way in to the city. The soft glow from the dashboard gives a bit of light to our faces as we make our way from dirt to pavement, and then carefully calculate the turns so as not to spill things from the shelves in the back. Conversation is challenging at that time of the morning, and floats along streams of the ridiculous, mundane, or onto any random story that comes to mind. Anything to keep the driver and passengers awake enough to function when we finally arrive at the market.

Tall yard lights illuminate barns and buildings, and the occasional yellow of a lamp fills a farmhouse window. Old people who cannot sleep and young people who rise to do whatever chores need doing move in the light. We finally greet another vehicle when we hit pavement, but often only one or two. The closer we get to the Interstate, the brightness heightens signifying commerce – gas stations, billboards, parking lots – and the few homes that are visible are dark. The Interstate is busy with other morning travelers. Once we near the city, darkness becomes a soft roof supported by streetlights and stoplights. The mostly empty streets are visible.

As we turn onto the market street, the pavement fills with cars, large and small trucks, and people moving quickly and purposefully. The cobblestone street is narrow here and vehicles and people line both sides. The stalls are lit and the bustle of vendors setting things out and preparing for the customers that will hopefully find their wares and prices irresistible. We move slowly as we circle the block.

Each week backing the truck in presents a nuanced challenge. The puzzle of vehicles – trucks, station wagons, vans, and sometimes garbage and recycling bins left outside too far from the building by the restaurants inside the small shopping center the market rests against on one side - varies in difficulty. I leap out to help guide the driver all the way back to the corner, moving bins and helping position the truck for easy unloading and loading and to not block a footpath. After what feels like forever and always with my heart in my mouth, the ignition is switched off and unloading begins.

Boxes of lettuce, beets, cauliflower, broccoli, salad mix, three kinds of kale, collards, celery, peppers sweet and hot, potatoes, winter or summer squash, yellow and green beans, cucumbers, carrots, four different kinds of basil, two kinds of parsley, sorrel, arugula, dill, cilantro, sometimes mint, strawberries in June, corn in August and September, heirloom tomatoes from late June through early October, and average tomatoes, and Swiss chard. Oh, and garlic, leeks, onions green and storage. And cabbage – green, red, and Chinese. Bok choi, too.

Then come the tables, and the milk crates for making a main table, the side table when we need it, and the stocking table in back. Bags paper and plastic, and the scale. Two signs – one that hangs and one that sits behind against the tree – to signal our presence and our practices, and finally us. Pint and quart containers are filled with potatoes – red and white, tomatoes regular not heirloom, beans, summer squash, and carrots. Greens go on the far end with their bunched stems to the customer for easy picking – curly, dinosaur, then Russian kale, Swiss chard and then collards - followed by beets, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and celery – plant or root, if we have it. Then quarts of beans nearly overflowing but not quite, line up and are stacked to tempt with their bounty, pints and quarts of potatoes red and white, large and small, followed by summer squash and cucumbers in season. The peppers jumble together here, too, with their greens, reds, and yellows, while the habeneros, cayennes red and purple, seranos, jalapenos, and tiny Thai burn quietly in a quart for 25 cents each. The watermelon sit heavily in back sending forward only one or two representatives.

Multiple varieties of lettuce heap onto the table and drip down the sides. Buttercup, oak leaf red and oak leaf green, rose lipped green ruffles, and romaines all ready for the taking. The herbs go next to them, sometimes identified with signs, and sometimes without. (Each Saturday Italian parsley has an identity crisis as many people assume it is cilantro, and then set it down again when they hear it is not.) The fish bowl of salad mix signals the freshly snipped tubs are still full, and then the garlic hugs the corner of the table. Heirloom tomatoes, stem end down, array themselves – Striped Germans, Brandywines, Roses, Purple Cherokees, Black Crim, Green Zebras, Amish Pastes, Voloklovs – to tempt and delight the curious and the connoisseur. (These are all but a bittersweet memory now.)

And then we wait. In the lull we greet those in the stall next to us, talk with other growers, and run to the restroom. We drink the last, cooling dregs of coffee or tea. In summer, the sky is already lightening, but now the darkness hangs over until nearly 8am.

As the light increases, so does the flow of people. Early morning shoppers are more intent, quiet, and tend to be a bit older. Later shoppers float along to find a good price and see what the market offers, but our regulars simply arrive and move along the table filling their bags. New buyers come when they see something interesting like celery or celery root, and they suddenly must have it. Beets enjoyed a burst of fame this summer after good press in the New York Times, and we still struggle to keep the table stocked with them. Carrots, too, fly off the table, and curly kale almost never returns to the farm. Garlic, onions, leeks, and broccoli are never seen again along with the beans and strawberries.

Our speed also increases as the morning moves along, until we do nothing but stock the table, tally numbers, fill bags, and make change. We hear how someone cooks something (like celery root, my latest mystery vegetable) or discuss how to cook something they have never seen before but are still drawn to purchase. But mostly we are steady movement, flowing from table to table, task to task, and somehow never much running into each other or knocking down boxes.

The light increases and the air warms. The sea of people flows around us with apples, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, pears, watermelon, flowers in bouquets or pots, coffee, pastries, eggs, and meat. They leave the stream to stop and look, ask for something to be identified and about prices. Some wince in what appears to be near physical pain, others voice their disgust at the cost. Others feel no qualms in telling us about their dissatisfaction with the appearance of a vegetables natural growth pattern – the bulging of a tomato so full of sun and rain that it’s skin can hardly contain it or the embrace of a carrot so vigorous in growth that it wrapped around itself – that I wonder what it is they hope for. Others laugh out loud at the potato that looks like a face and marvel at the brilliance of colors in the stalks of Swiss chard. Many return to say they never tasted a lettuce so wonderful or made such fine pesto. Many buy multiples to freeze or can so that the sweet taste of summer is carried to dinner on a cold winter evening.

Our stock dwindles and so one table and then two disappear. The last lettuce sits lonely and limp with a few stray parsley, and pints of potatoes and a small herd of peppers. Bits of the salad mix – stray violas, now flat radicchio, a last curling bit of endive – are scattered about the ground. The truck is again full, but this time of mostly empty boxes and tubs, unless the tomatoes are in full swing. Then the flats of tomatoes seem endless, and return to the shelves if they ever even left initially. Women with heavy accents come to barter. The food we grow moves on to be eaten and enrich the lives of those who purchase it. Ultimately, one of our goals is achieved.

Sleep scratches the edges of our eyes as we sweep up and begin the drive home. Conversation about the market, food, the day, and anything that springs to mind again fills the cab. Hot sunlight pours in to roast us and help sleep try to find an advantage. Turns are not always so carefully made and the spill of boxes is often audible. The tomatoes remain, mercifully, fixed in place and safe.

City streets turn to Interstate to state highway to country roads paved and then dirt. Finally, in a cloud of diesel and waking exhaustion, I spill out the door to the end of the driveway where it all began. Despite the late afternoon hour, I feel as though I just left and the day is just beginning.

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