Local produce hits the retail trail

08/05/2010 12:00 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO
Farmer Brian Gajeski with some of specialty crops he grows: Italian round eggplant, sunburst squash, green Kermit eggplants, white cherry tomatoes, bicolor corn, garlic and hot cherry peppers. He has been farming for nine years on 120 acres and grows around 100 varieties of vegetables, which he often trucks to markets in western Long Island and New York City.

On Friday evenings in summer, farmer Christine Davis must make sure a truck is fully loaded with her farm’s different varieties of peaches, plums and berries before she goes to bed. That’s because she has to be ready to hit the road by 5 a.m. Saturday morning.

She and a few employees arrive at the Westhampton Beach farmers market about 6 a.m. and begin the arduous task of setting up eight or so tables and unpacking boxes and boxes of fruit. They scramble to get everything set up by 9 a.m. when the market opens for the day.

“As soon as you open, someone is usually walking into your tent trying to buy something,” she said.

Though the hours are long — she usually doesn’t leave until 2 or 3 p.m. — the payout is worth it.

Ms. Davis, co-owner of Davis Peach Farm on Sound Avenue in Wading River, is just one of many East End farmers who participate in farmers markets throughout Long Island and as far away as New York City. Many local farmers say that although lugging their wares around the island is hard work, selling retail through farmers markets generates higher profits than selling wholesale and allows them to reach a wider audience. Many say they can easily sell out by the end of the day because people are more apt to buy in bulk at a farmers market in their area that’s only open once a week.

The idea to open a network of local farmers markets in Suffolk and Nassau counties was born somewhat out of frustration, after one North Fork farmer got tired of making the daily trip into Manhattan, then the nearest market.

Ethel Terry and her husband, Fred, co-owners of one of the oldest farms in New York State, Fred Terry Farms in Orient, participated in farmers markets in Manhattan almost every day in the late 1980s and early SSRq90s. Though the money was good — much better than running their farm stand in fact — selling there meant leaving their Orient home by 3 a.m. and not returning until 9 p.m.

That’s why Ms. Terry helped open the first Long Island Growers Market in Islip in 1991. She now helps run about 13 markets in Nassau and Suffolk from June through Thanksgiving, including one on Thursdays in downtown Riverhead.

Selling at the markets has been so successful that she and her husband have since stopped offering their produce through their farm stand and other retailers and only sell through farmers markets.

“We went from wholesale to retail and that’s what saved the farm,” Ms. Terry said.

Ms. Terry explained that in a wholesale model, where produce is sold at a mark-up through third-party retailers like supermarket chains, a farmer might get only about $2 for 12 heads of lettuce. But by selling directly to consumers at a farmers market, she said, that same farmer could get $2 per head, making about 12 times what he or she would have otherwise.

Though farmers markets are open all over Suffolk County, some local growers, like Brian Gajeski of Riverhead, still make the trip to Manhattan, the Bronx and beyond. Mr. Gajeski, whose family also owns Northville Ben Gatz Farm on Sound Avenue, makes the trip west five days a week to sell tomatoes, eggplants and peppers.

“It’s a lot of work because we can have 50 or 60 items going to market,” Mr. Gajeski said.

He said that in addition to meaning higher profits for the farmer, farmers markets also benefit the consumer by providing more personal service and fresher produce.

“It’s picked within 24 hours of the market,” Mr. Gajeski said. “They get to know their farmer.”

He added that he’s had many repeat customers at the different farmers markets over the past eight years.

As for Ms. Davis, she said selling her fruit at the markets has increased business at her orchard and farm stand as well. People at a market will get a taste of the doughnut peaches or exotic plums grown on her farm and will then make the trip to Wading River for more.

“You can’t find what I grow anywhere else,” she said.

vchinese@timesreview.com

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