Belinda Learned grew up on Studio Farm in Voluntown, even though her parents were both teachers. "That farm put us all through college," she says, referring to her two brothers and sister. "Then, when I started a family, we were trying to make ends meet, so I started my own garden. As the kids got older, they'd take the extras to sell from a stand. It morphed from there."
In 1992, Belinda and her husband, Ed, bought Stonyledge Farm, a 103-acre working farm that sits primarily in North Stonington, with a little snippet crossing over the Hopkinton, R.I., border. She works as a school secretary and finds the time to sell her farm-fresh goods at the Denison Farm Market every Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. About 18 vendors come out each week, creating the home-grown, community experience that area farmers markets are known for. Craig Edwards provides good old "roots" music most weeks, and patrons can enjoy fresh cannoli from an Italian bakery at picnic tables under the cool shade of a tent.
The Denison market sells mostly locally grown produce, like various greens, seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs. Vendors bring maple syrup, vinegars, jams, goat cheese, farm fresh eggs. Guest vendors bring arts and crafts. Stonyledge Farm brings a variety of vegetables along with local meats, eggs and honey. Hot hamburgers and hot dogs are available at the market for patrons who want to have lunch and enjoy the atmosphere. Folks who purchase a Denison Farm Market button for $10 receive discounts from each vendor throughout the season. Proceeds from the sale of those buttons have provided funding for tents and picnic tables, according to Learned.
"People can sit under a tent and enjoy the music and what they picked up at the market," she says. "We hope to put up an educational tent one day," where demonstrations and informational lectures would take place.
The market is run by the farmers themselves. Learned has been active with the Denison market since it began. The other market she participates in is the Stonington Farmers Market, held Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon.
"We believe in staying as close to home as we can," she says. "I think that farmers should be involved (in running the market). We're there to support each other and we do."
Learned finds that people enjoy the market experience because they can talk with the farmers directly.
Over at the Town Dock in Stonington Borough, the Stonington summer market is busy with about 25 vendors each week; 23 are food vendors and two spots are allocated for crafters. The criteria for being a vendor is that everything must be Connecticut-grown or raised. The market is operated by the Stonington Village Improvement Association and overseen by Stonington resident and market coordinator Julia Roberts.
"We are a pretty well-rounded market," she says. "Our customers are very concerned about their health. The freshest and healthiest food you can buy comes from farmers markets. For them, it's their grocery store. The food is grown on small farms without the use of chemicals used in industrial farming."
Some of the vendors are certified organic, but not all. Most markets accept Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) and Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC) vouchers and SNAP/Food Stamp EBT cards, but at some markets, it's up to the individual vendor. The market is held rain or shine and during the winter months they relocate to the Stonington Community Center at 28 Cutler Street.
The Stanton Davis Farm is one of the oldest farms in Connecticut (dating back to the mid 1600's) and they sell a special corn that has been grown in Connecticut for years. They turn it into cornmeal and polenta to sell at the market, and it can be used to make johnnycakes and cornbread, according to Roberts.
Shiitake and oyster mushrooms grown on straw bales or logs that have never been in the dirt arrive from Maggie's Farm in Lebanon. Roberts says they look like sculptural pieces. It's not hard to envision folks meandering about while local musicians play acoustic guitar, banjo or fiddle.
Dragon's Blood Elixir, created by chef Doug Crane, is another unique item offered only at this shoreline market. Crane now offers a whole
line of his artisan hot sauces and
"One of the attractions of a farmers market-based business is that everyone there wants to be there," says Crane. "My returning customers want to know what is new this week and are actively interested in the creative pathway that leads to a new sauce."
Roberts is impressed by the family nature of the event as she witnesses young people being engaged in their family farm business. Vendor space is often manned by the kids growing up on the farms where the products come from. For Roberts, that is a beautiful thing.
"I love the market," she says. "It's all about the food, the locally grown, sustainable nature of agriculture. I'm a passionate believer in the market."
Farmers markets are not just for the quaint seaside villages. New London has three sites for the Field of Greens markets managed and co-sponsored by Thames Valley Sustainable Connections, where Art Costa is the president and CEO.
"The community owns the market," says Costa. "There are children's activities and educational opportunities that reflect the diversity of the New London community."
One market downtown, one near Lawrence + Memorial Hospital and one in Hodges Square create opportunities for farmers to reach a variety of people. All products are grown or produced in Connecticut. Vendors carry in-season fruits and vegetables, an assortment of meat including free range chicken, goat cheese, bread, baked goods and prepared foods. They also offer an assortment of syrup, honey, jams and jellies.
Folks in the Waterford area frequent their local market at the town hall on Rope Ferry Road, Saturday mornings. Vendor Rob Schacht, from Quaker Hill's Hunts Brook Farm, reports that the market offers a diverse selection of meats, fruits and vegetables. There are about 15 vendors with an occasional crafter.
"Great local farms are participating," says Schacht, who was involved in the original conception of the market four years ago. "Farmers markets are more than an economic interaction. They (the patrons) are helping keep the farming community vibrant and alive."
Teri Smith is the coordinator and vendor at the Niantic Farmers Market, where a small group of vendors create a small-town opportunity for patrons to enjoy big-town flavor. While acoustic guitarist John Wood often entertains the crowd, shoppers can find hanging baskets, honey, candles, hummus, prepared foods, pork, ham and bacon, and lots more offered by the 6-8 vendors that attend each Thursday. Up until last year, it was limited only to food.
"We don't want it to be a craft fair," says Smith, owner of Smith Acres in Niantic. "It's a farmers market." But now they allocate space for an artisan or two. Smith brings her USDA-certified, hormone-free smoked meats to the Niantic market.
"I just love local people, and it's a fun cause because it's a place to meet and greet your friends. It's a social event. You come to the farmers market and go home with everything you need for dinner and flowers for the table."