Most locals know that the Central New York Regional Farmers Market is the place to find everything that can possibly be grown around this neck of the woods during the spring and summer months. But there are plenty of local goods available post-harvest as well. Even in the dead of January, you won’t leave empty-handed.
“People ask me all the time, ‘When is the market starting up again?’” says Eugene Elemos, manager of the Regional Market, with a laugh. “I tell them, ‘We never closed.’”
For the produce vendors and local business owners who purchase from them, it’s just business as usual when the market is less busy during the colder months. But Elemos, who oversees some 452 leases a year between the Saturday and Thursday farmers markets, and the Sunday flea market, says there are also plenty of local and regional farmers and food producers who continue to hawk their wares at the market.
Joann Delaney, owner of Syracuse-based Delaney Farms, has been spending her Saturday mornings at the Regional Market, 2100 Park St., for 29 years. The Delaneys’ corn is a hot seller during the summer, and although the crowds are smaller during the cooler months, that’s no reason to stay home. “Oh, it’s very much worth it for us,” says Delaney, who also serves on the market’s board of directors. “We still have locally grown products to sell, and we only sell what we grow on our farm.”
These days, that means Swiss chard (so yummy sautéed with garlic), late-harvest herbs like parsley and rosemary, winter squashes, cabbage, a little spinach and dried flowers. Apples, potatoes, onions, honey, kale, arugula, eggs, some meats and maple syrup are also still plentiful—and sold by several local growers. Delaney says evergreen wreaths and trees start filling the sheds right after Thanksgiving. That’s right, you can even get a Christmas tree at the market.
Delaney says she and the other local farmers who sell year-round at the Regional Market have benefited greatly from the growing interest in eating locally produced foods. She cautions that customers need to pay attention to who they are buying from. Vendors often sell imported goods, while farmers sell their own crops, meats and dairy items.
“You have to talk to the vendor if you are looking for homegrown produce,” Delaney says. “There are a lot of people now who really care about eating local food. And not all the dealers have homegrown items.”
Delaney adds that one of the best reasons for shopping at a large market is the sheer variety of choices. Apple growers often bring some of their lesser-known, heirloom varieties to the market, and the Delaneys themselves offer some “weird” varieties of winter squash that are just not found in grocery stores.
Delaney says there is still a sizable number of Regional Market customers who will can the less-hardy items such as tomatoes, enabling them to eat local all year. She says more and more farmers are venturing into enhanced greenhouse farming—allowing them to extend growing seasons on certain vegetables.
While the produce farmers are limited by the seasons, Meg and Bruce Schader of Wake Robin Farms in Jordan can offer their products throughout the year: locally made artisan cheeses and yogurt. For the past five years, the dairy has had a year-round presence at the market selling cheese, cheese curd, milk and yogurt. Meg Schader, who runs the farm with husband Bruce and 12-year-old son Hugh, says she has definitely noticed an upswing in the number of off-season customers at her booth in recent years.
“Not everybody knows the market is open year-round, but the number of people who do is growing,” she says. “You get what we call ‘the hardcores.’ For some people, the market is where they do all their weekly grocery shopping.”
For the Schaders, this boost in market foot traffic has resulted in changes to their production schedule. “We used to not make cheese curd in the winter, but these days, with demand, we go year-round with all our products,” Meg says.
That’s not to say that the Schaders’ products are completely immune to Central New York’s seasonal climate fluctuations. Milk production is directly influenced by what dairy cows eat. Schader says when the herd is able to graze and eat grass, milk production is up. When their diet is more hay-based, the cows produce less milk.
The Schaders, who do all the work on the farm themselves, currently offer their complete product line at the market: whole-cream white and chocolate milk, fresh cheese curd and several aged cheeses (including a seasonal, aged brie, Jordan Jack), and a new spreadable cheese for the holiday season. The farm is also known for its yogurt, which is produced in three flavors: plain, vanilla and maple.
Schader says about 95 percent of the farm’s income comes from direct sales, and much of that is from sales at the Regional Market. “Our bread and butter is direct sales,” she says. “And we love the relationship we have with our customers. We know many of them by name.”
That’s a philosophy shared by many of the year-round market vendors, even those hawking more durable edibles such as pastas, jams and coffee. Like the Delaneys and the Schaders, Ithaca-based Forty Weight Coffee is at the market every week, building on an already-solid following.
“The market certainly slows down in the winter, but I have a cult following that keeps my numbers really solid,” boasts co-owner and roast master Andrew Ballard. “Overall, it’s still a great place to shop during the colder months.”
Schader says if there is anything that sets the Syracuse Regional Market apart from others, it’s sheer diversity: customers enjoy having a wide variety of options. “That’s part of what makes the regional market so special,” she says. “It has its own unique culture.”
That’s what brings Jen Rowley, a Syracuse University-area resident, out to the market year-round. While she doesn’t consider herself one of the die-hards, she goes often enough to know that no matter what time of year it is, there’s always something good there.
“I used to just come in the summer for vegetables, but I tried some grass-fed beef last year,” she says. “I get things like onions and potatoes there all the time.”
Rowley admits that the many sweet treats and baked goods available are another draw for her. “I love the homemade fudge,” she says. “And the pies that the Amish bring in are always great.”
Elemos, who has managed the market for the past decade, says that diversity is what keeps his job interesting. He is proud of the fact that, nearly 75 years after it began, the market remains a vital part of the local food scene.
“You never know what will happen on any given Saturday or Sunday,” he says. “With the changes in the economy, there are all kinds of vendors who want to have a stall at the market. It’s hard to turn people away—that’s the worst part of my job.
“This is really about community-building,” Elemos continues. “The vendors and the customers really get to know each other. It’s a fun process to be a part of.”
Elemos says he and executive director Ben Vitale are always looking to improve the market even more. The main sheds have been upgraded and made more energy-efficient in recent years, and a new shed will be completed this winter. Elemos says the leases for all 75 stalls available for next year have already been signed.“It’s amazing how high the demand is now,” he says. “It will be interesting to see what else customers will be able to find here. That’s going to be great.”