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Making a stand

The Reading market will answer a new threat by giving its roots a chance to regrow.

In the empty alcove that once housed Rick's Philly Steaks, the cheesesteakery ousted from Reading Terminal Market in a leasing dispute, you will find these days a pleasantly diverting view.

The ghost of Samuel Koons poses there now, presiding over his "farm produce" stall (butter, eggs, poultry, sausage, scrapple), his calling card grainy in one of a series of photo enlargements, some from a century ago.

Next to it on a converted luggage wagon from the old railway that once terminated upstairs (before terminating for good) is a vintage ad for Mark Clement's "farmer and florist" stall, offering the finest, fresh harvest from Woodbury.

Indeed, the Reading market made its bones as a farmers market, opening in 1892, the indoor and modernized successor (There was cold storage in the basement!) to the city's deteriorating system of street sheds.

But times change, and change again. And if the decline of farmers markets nearly doomed the Reading market by the 1970s, their revival just as swiftly lifted its fortunes. And that would have been just fine. But the cycle didn't end there: The old-style street sheds came back into vogue, too, starring cartons of fresh peaches and real, live farmers in muddy boots.

That threat has not escaped the notice of Paul Steinke, the market's general manager. So before the next growing season rolls around, he plans to fill the empty socket where the steak stand was extracted: He's offered to relocate (and double the 340-square-footprint of) the Fair Food Farmstand, the market's thriving - its gross was up 30 percent from last year - redoubt of local, family-farmed produce, crafted cheeses and grass-fed meat.

It's not the only source of local fruits and vegetables here: Farmer Earl Livengood offers them. And Kauffman's, the Amish stand. In season, the Iovine Brothers and O.K. Lee produce stalls supplement their lines of Big Ag produce with local berries and corn.

But Fair Food's determined, year-round

raison d'etre (as part of a White Dog Cafe initiative) is to forage for local, sustainable bounty, to champion it, to be an alternative food universe, to celebrate the irregular, the limited edition, the lost-flavor heritage breed.

When founder Ann Karlen opened it on a card table (one day a week) five years ago, it touted "humanely raised" food, upsetting nearby sandwich-makers and butchers who said it implied they were selling cruelly raised food.

But it made peace in the neighborhood, and in a reversal of roles, is now one of the market's selling points: "With the growth of the weekly outdoor farm markets," says Steinke, "Fair Food is our answer to that. Every day."

December is not the kindest month at the stand: The rainbow of tomatoes is gone. And the buttery heads of lettuce. But it is astounding how much is still left - tiny ears of Lady Finger popcorn and golden acorn squash, flavorful Russian Banana fingerling potatoes (and six more varieties) from the 40-member Lancaster Farm Fresh Coop, odd mushrooms and jarred pumpkin puree, frozen bison from Quarryville, and heirloom cranberries dry-harvested in a family's hidden Pine Barrens bog.

It is one of the few outlets that offers raw milk from farms state-licensed to bottle it (from heritage-breed Dutch Belted and Brown Swiss cows). And locally grown and milled spelt flour. And organic yogurt cheese. (About 70 percent of the inventory, says comanager Sarah Cain, is raised organically, "but we're not dogmatic" about certification.)

So by spring - if Fair Food nails down its end of the financing - it will move from the market's deepest interior to its big-windowed "front door" along 12th Street, its baskets of potatoes and parsnips and fiddlehead ferns reminding passersby that, yes, though an Amish rib stand and Golden Bowl Chinese, Pearl's Oyster Bar and Bassett's Ice Cream counter look out on the sidewalk here, this is still - in its DNA and best aspiration - part farmers market, and not just a place to eat lunch.

The Fair Food Farmstand

Reading Terminal Market,

12th and Arch Streets