How to Make Pittsburgh's Farmers Markets Better
Market managers, farmers and customers all can play a role in helping markets to live up to their potential.
PHOTO BY LAURA PETRILLA
Farmers markets are where I became a better eater. My understanding of how extraordinary fruit could taste started with a deeply aromatic, punch-you-in-the-face-flavorful strawberry at a market in Santa Cruz, Calif. I began to learn how to cook some of the myriad varieties of potatoes by talking to farmers at the Union Square market in New York. It’s frustrating that, in my five years in Pittsburgh, our farmers markets seem to have plateaued rather than progressed.
MARGARET SCHLASS / PHOTO BY Don Holtz
There certainly are noteworthy farmers at our markets — I especially like the budding innovation at Nick Lubecki’s Butter Hill Farm and the consistent quality of Margaret Schlass’s One Woman Farm — but there aren’t enough of them. Our markets are still too crowded with conventional growers, particularly farmers who also sell produce bought at auction (farmers are obliged to disclose that information, but in my experience not every farmer does).
The modern history of Pittsburgh farmers markets begins in 1975 on the North Side. There, according to current Citiparks farmers market supervisor Mirella Ranallo, the Urban Redevelopment Authority started a market that operated three days a week. Some of those original vendors — Jodikinos Farms, Joe Chahine’s Pitaland and Paul’s Orchards — still are selling at Citiparks markets. “Vendors just started showing up, so the city decided to set up bylaws and charge $3 per day,” she says in reference to Pittsburgh’s Citiparks' takeover of market management in 1976.
Over the years, locations have come and gone; this year the city runs seven markets. Vendors at Citiparks markets are determined by seniority, not by quality. If you sold at a market one year, all you need to do (assuming you haven’t violated any laws) is sign up again for next year. Only when markets are short on vendors will Ranallo look to her waiting list. “You can’t throw somebody out just because someone has better peaches,” she says.
I wish she would. I’d love to see more farmers selling delicious and interesting produce, especially fruit. I had some phenomenal peaches from Toigo Orchards at the Silver Spring farmers market just outside of Washington, D.C.; the orchard grows those peaches in Shippensburg, Pa., less than three hours from Pittsburgh.
PHOTO BY HAL B. KLEIN
Farmers tell me they are hesitant to grow delicate or adventurous crops for farmers markets because they feel there isn’t enough demand for those items. Pittsburgh, by and large, still wants a generic red beefsteak tomato and not a fragile (both to grow and transport) heirloom such as a Black Krim. Here’s the catch: Other consumers don’t go out of their way to go to a market because farmers aren’t always bringing their best, which in general goes first to restaurants and Community Supported Agriculture programs.
Greg Boulos is co-owner of Blackberry Meadows Farm in Natrona Heights. It’s one of my favorite farms in the region because he and partner Jen Montgomery always are on the hunt for flavor. They focus on growing crops from the Slow Food Ark of Taste, but the tables at the four markets in which they participate often aren’t a reflection of what’s happening on the farm. That’s in large part because the farm operates a robust CSA, a category that’s become increasingly competitive over the last few years.
“I would think that most farmers would make CSA their first priority because they [CSA members] have already paid for it,” he says, adding that he’s also conscious that there are consumers who don’t have CSAs and that he always tries to take some of the good stuff to market.
That’s challenging in a year like this one, which — because of gloomy, rainy weather through June and early July, followed immediately by scorching heat — was pretty bad for farmers. Weather also affects market attendance. “Farmers markets have always been volatile. People don’t go on rainy days, and they often don’t go on hot, sunny days,” Boulos says.
WHO COOKS FOR YOU FARM / PHOTO BY LAURA PETRILLA
For those reasons, other farmers focus first on restaurants.
Chris Brittenburg, who owns Who Cooks For You Farm in Armstrong County with his wife Aeros Lillstrom, also is struggling with the current makeup of farmers markets. “I always thought that Pittsburgh was an untapped market in so many ways. I still think that. But farmers here are having a hard time selling their stuff,” he says.
He says he believes it’s not just the weather that keeps customers from the markets but the markets themselves. “Markets need to be way more fun. Food is fun. But there’s no investment in that at all right now,” he says.
Along with better entertainment, market management should invest in a more robust promotions program to bring in people who might not otherwise go to a grocery store. Numbers, he says, will give vendors like him a bit more security to experiment with unique varieties of produce.
Although his farm is Certified Naturally Grown (a less-expensive, grassroots alternative to a Certified Organic label) he supports the continued presence of vendors such as Jodikinos farm, even if that farm often has a much longer line for its produce than his does. “I think we’re on the same team. They serve an important part of the population. I think having a straight organic market would probably suck because there isn’t enough of that here,” he says.
PHOTO BY HAL B. KLEIN
One market with a lot of potential is the Bloomfield Saturday Market, now in its second season. “We started this market as a way to create community in the neighborhood,” says Christina Howell, interim executive director of the Bloomfield Development Corp.
According to Howell, nothing in this market — aside from weather, of course — is left to chance. When the market opened, the BDC brought in Kelly Foss, a consultant with the highly successful Downtown Farmers Market in Des Moines, Iowa. “She helped us pull back and think about bigger issues,” Howell says.
Howell also worked with NYC-based Project for Public Spaces and The Design Center in Downtown Pittsburgh for strategic planning on making the market feel welcoming and engaging as well as how to drawn in people. That’s why the market is anchored on each side by two very different farms. “When people walk into the market, they want to see fruits and vegetables right off the bat. People know who Freedom Farms is, so that’s a draw. Nick from Butter Hill brings a strong display every week, and he never misses a market,” she says.
PHOTO BY HAL B. KLEIN
I also love JP Farm’s small table in the middle of the market. The friendly farmers from Slippery Rock consistently bring a tasty selection to the market, including some of the best peaches and plums I had this year. It’s worth seeking them out.
Plus — and this is why I think the market has so much potential — market management isn’t resting on early success. Howell roams the market every week, talking with each vendor about what’s working and what’s not. She says she’s not afraid to make adjustments mid-season. “We look for vendors who support each other. Customers can pick up on a vibe of miserable vendors,” she says.
PHOTO BY HAL B. KLEIN
Still, while that market is thriving, other Saturday markets with good intentions are struggling.
Farmers@Firehouse, which runs Saturday mornings in the Bar Marco parking lot, had potential. When I moved here from California, I quickly grew fond of the Strip District market on Saturday mornings, and F@F became a community gathering place for me and fellow food friends. There always was a solid lineup of farmers and lively cooking demonstrations from Pittsburgh chefs and food personalities.
Farmers, including Jeff and Shelley Mott, were beginning to experiment with lesser-known but delicious heritage varieties of vegetables, as were fellow vendors Next Life Farm and Blackberry Meadows. This was a market where the farmers were happy to educate you about what to do with those unfamiliar crops.
After the 2013 season, the owners of four farms — including the Motts and Next Life — retired, and others aren’t putting as much effort into the market as they once did. “Those changes were devastating for the market. We haven’t been able to recover from them,” says Susan Barclay, a board member of Slow Food Pittsburgh and one of the people who oversees the market.
Now, she says, they’re facing a conundrum. “We don’t have enough vendors to attract customers, but we need customers to attract the vendors,” she says.
NORTH WOODS RANCH / PHOTO COURTESY THE FARM
At the other end of the 16:62 Design Zone is the Lawrenceville Farmers Market on Saturday afternoons, run by Lawrenceville United. The market, now in its fourth year, also is struggling with a limited number of vendors and low turnout. Vendors who do sell there — especially North Woods Ranch and Wild Purveyors — are excellent, but because what is offered is so limited, it’s hard to convince people to make a trip if they don’t already live in the neighborhood.
“We’re creating a little pop-up grocery shop. If consumers can’t meet their food needs, they won’t shop here,” says Blackberry Meadows' Boulos.
So where do we go from here?
The first step is to pare back the number of markets. Bob Batz Jr., the former food editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, listed 120-plus regional markets this year on his terrific interactive map. That’s too many. “The [negative] impact of the large number of markets cannot be overstated. The city isn’t big enough to support all of them,” says F@F’s Barclay.
PHOTO BY HAL B. KLEIN
It’s also time to have a market coalition, perhaps something based on the Farmers Market Alliance, run by Rita Pollock in the early to mid-2000s. “Farmers are very busy. They don’t always have time to talk to each other, so we provided the framework and the forum for them to do that,” says Pollock.
“If we had something like that, market managers and vendors could get together, voice opinions and talk strategy,” says Boulos.
As consumers, we should encourage farmers to push the boundaries of quality. I’m sympathetic to the issues raised by Boulos, Brittenburg and other farmers, but as a consumer I want more from them. I want people who don’t have the time, space or inclination to grow their own food to have access to delicious and nutritious produce at a reasonable price. Farmers need to take at least a small risk that consumers are willing to seek out the good stuff.
Seth Nyer of Pittsburgh Permaculture and the Fourth River Workers Guild offers an innovative suggestion that might help: He believes somebody should build a clearinghouse where farmers can drop off unsold market produce after a market. That produce would then be sold at a reduced price. I like this idea. By creating a secondary market for unsold goods, farmers could take home some cash they wouldn’t otherwise earn, and good, clean food would be available to food access.
JUST HARVEST / PHOTO BY LAURA PETRILLA
Fair and just access to food should be part of any farmers market, and at least there’s been some good news on that front. Just Harvest started its Fresh Access program in 2013. Now, consumers on food assistance — commonly known as SNAP (for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) — can use their benefits at 15 area markets, including all of the Citiparks markets and the Saturday markets in Bloomfield and Lawrenceville. This year the program improved with the introduction of the Food Bucks initiative, which gives SNAP users an additional $2 to spend on fruits and vegetables for every $5 of food assistance that they use at the markets.
There’s also Farm Truck Foods, which aims to bring locally grown produce to the neighborhoods still underserved not just by farm markets but also by grocery stores in general. Still, we still have a long way to go when it comes to markets in underserved neighborhoods. I’ll have more on food-access issues in a future story.
Summer season is winding down, but you still have a couple of months to dig into the fall harvest. The Bloomfield market and most Citiparks markets run through at least the first week of November, and some Citiparks markets go until the end of that month. If you’re already a regular market-goer, talk to your favorite farmers and to market managers about what you’d like to see next year. If you’re not yet a regular at any markets, now is a good time to start. I’m looking forward to Aldo Sauro’s figs and the superb offerings of heirloom apples from Sand Hill Berries; both should start appearing at markets this week.