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Freshness, ethics at farmers’ markets

During the dog days of summer that leave some of us yearning for fall, it’s hard to remember we New Englanders don’t have the luxury of getting produce locally year round, as some other states do. 

So as green things sprout grow into delicious and healthy emerald-green broccoli, ruby-red peppers and the deepest of purple eggplant, it seems as if every town tries to take advantage by putting on a farmers’ market.

On the North Shore, one can visit a farmers’ market almost any day of the week. But what you’ll find is that, like the communities themselves, no two markets are alike, and each experience is determined by the culture and energy of its people.

Though Swampscott residents had only been traveling a few miles to cross the border into Marblehead every Saturday, they struck out on their own last summer to bring a market to their own town.

“Marblehead has its own market and Salem has its own market, so we are hoping to provide an alternative to nearby communities,” said Lillian Nye, a Swampscott Farmers’ Market organizer.

The farmers’ market at Swampscott High School, held 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday in the summer through October, is less than a mile from both a Stop & Shop and a Whole Foods Market, and borders Salem, where there is a Market Basket supermarket. But the steady stream of Swampscott consumers choose to take their dollars to the high school on Sunday morning because of the “ethical dimension,” said Nye.

“It think it probably draws people interested in high-quality food,” said Nye. “The meats, vegetables and eggs are produced in a sustainable way, and very fresh. A lot of them are picked that morning, not warehoused for weeks.”

Nye said though sometimes high quality means high price, for Swampscott consumers the ethics are worth saving a few dollars at the supermarket.

“I think what people don’t realize is what it actually costs to produce things,” she said. “Prices are depressed in grocery stores. Large growers cut costs and do things as cheaply as possible.”

The philosophy is about supporting smaller producers like John Crow Farm in Groton, Clark Farm in Danvers and Grant Family Farm in Essex so they can get a fair price for their products, explained Nye, rather than them having to sell through distributors.

Nye said the farmers’ market encourages a relationship not only with the farmers, but also to the community as it becomes a meeting place. With new programs and events almost every week to draw shoppers, the Swampscott Farmers’ Market paints the picture of the perfect leisurely Sunday.

Shoppers can stroll in, meet their friends and do a yoga class in front of the high school, browse the market and chat with a vendor while sampling Alfalfa Winery’s signature sangria and noshing on a cannoli from the local bakery.

Once the weekly groceries are nestled in their canvas bags, shoppers can check out a handmade jewelry vendor, and toss some coins in the guitar case of a local musician before watching town officials battle it out in a watermelon eating contest.

Latino staples in Lynn

Cut to the mid-week rush in the heart of downtown Lynn. As the minutes tick toward 11 a.m. Thursday, a line forms outside the small patch of gravel surrounded by concrete buildings in Central Square.

Once the market is opened, shoppers stream toward Farmer Dave’s Stand and leave with their arms full of the long, green tamale leaves, a standard ingredient in Latin American cooking.

“Some of our farmers have crops that are hard to find, but are common in Latin American and Cambodian cooking,” said Jason Harrison, North Shore regional director of the Food Project, the organization that runs the Lynn Farmers’ Market. “A lot of Spanish-speaking customers get corn husks every week.”

There are no $6 bottles of pesto or yoga classes here. But according to Harrison, the quality is still important to Lynn shoppers, even with a lower per capita income and larger immigrant population.

According to a customer survey given to a group of 50 Lynn Farmers’ Market shoppers, 72 percent reported that supporting local farmers and businesses was important to them and 68 percent said taking part in the community was very important. The surveyed, who reported coming to the market three or more times a week, ranked quality of produce first, then selection, and acceptance of public benefits third.

With an open market culture in many parts of the world, the farmers’ market plays a big role for many in Lynn.

“Something I’ve noticed is that a lot of customers at the Lynn market really come to shop,” said Harrison. “The thing about farmers’ markets is you know the food is always fresh, usually picked that day. I think for a lot of people around the world, they put a premium on that freshness.”

Harrison said a big draw at the market is raw honey for the Russian and Ukrainian shoppers. Though honey is a central part of their diet, they value the minimally-processed honey over what is available at the supermarket.

Though Harrison says prices can be higher at the market, the Food Project works with state and federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to accept discounts and coupons so low-income shoppers don’t to miss out on quality, nutritious food.

Assuring fair prices

As a Farm Fellow for her college internship with the Food Project, Caroline Loub picks vegetables from the farm at Ingalls Elementary School before the market at 7 a.m., and spends the day at the market. Part of her job involves walking around and making sure prices from all the vendors are fair.

Loub, a Marblehead resident, said the environment at the Lynn market is very different to that of her hometown. “The difference is definitely the price, but also the types of things we sell — here we sell mostly produce, they sell fancy cheese and bread. Customers here are looking for more necessities,” she said while working on Thursday. “There’s a lot more diversity here with clients and it’s very fast-paced ”¦ but it’s a great place for exchange of different ideas and cultures.”

Three markets, all within ten miles of each other. The culture, the people and their needs differ, but they all agree on quality, whether it’s something you can spread on a crostini or conjures memories of a former homeland far away.

Editor’s Note: The location of the Saugus farmers’ market has changed. It is open Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to  1 p.m. through Oct. at  at Anna Parker Playground, 120 Essex St.

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