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As the local-food movement matures, farmers' markets face more competition

A decade ago, Ben Wenk had a new diploma from Pennsylvania State University in agroecology and a decision to make: whether to strike out on his own or return to Adams County and join the family business, Three Springs Fruit Farm.

Shoppers at Headhouse Farmers' Market. The typical customer, says a Farm to City manager, will spend $25 to $30 at a market. "If you add more vendors," he said, "they just spread the $25" among more stands.
Shoppers at Headhouse Farmers' Market. The typical customer, says a Farm to City manager, will spend $25 to $30 at a market. "If you add more vendors," he said, "they just spread the $25" among more stands.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

A decade ago, Ben Wenk had a new diploma from Pennsylvania State University in agroecology and a decision to make: whether to strike out on his own or return to Adams County and join the family business, Three Springs Fruit Farm.

Then, he saw an announcement about a new farmers' market in Society Hill. His family hadn't sold at farmers' markets.

"It clicked: That's what I wanted to do. It was the chance to be a vendor here at Headhouse Farmers' Market that convinced me to come back to the farm," he said on a Sunday afternoon in May, manning his stand in the brick-paved arcade at Second and Pine Streets.

Headhouse, arguably the city's most venerable farmers' market, is marking its 10th year. A lot has changed in that time - both at Three Springs, which now sells at nine markets that account for 40 percent of its revenue, and across the city, home to more than 40 farmers' markets. The boom reflects a national trend: The number of markets has nearly doubled since 2006, to 8,476 last year.

But there are signs the movement might be plateauing.

Farmers' overall sales at markets, after climbing dramatically, declined about 1 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

And though there are several new markets this year, others have closed.

"The landscape has changed, in that there are a lot of places for folks to get local food," said Lisa Kelly, who manages Headhouse for the nonprofit Food Trust. Competition includes CSAs, boutiques like Green Aisle Grocery, and even Walmart. "We're not the only game in town anymore."

Jon Glyn, farmers' market program manager at Farm to City, said the business has been maturing.

"I feel like we're hitting the second wave of the farmers' market movement," he said.

"For 10 or 15 years, we've had a lot of interest in farmers' markets. Every neighborhood wanted their own, and even old-school farmers that gave up on farmers' markets in the '80s and '90s are now coming back. Some of our markets are on their 10th year, and they've actually inspired this new generation of young people who are getting into farming. But they're having trouble finding spots at farmers' markets that already have established vendors, and everyone is fighting for the same dollars."

Creating a farmers' market is a science, Glyn said.

He likes to pair an anchor vendor - the growers of corn and peaches, say - with smaller farms selling sustainable, organic, or heirloom produce like herbs, tomatoes, or kale. If the market can sustain it, he'll add flower growers, bakers, or other artisan-food producers: start-ups selling jams or pastries or herbal teas made with holy basil. It's about bringing in enough vendors to draw a crowd, but not so many that they cannibalize business.

The typical customer, he said, will spend $25 to $30 at the market.

"If you add more vendors, the customers don't spend more," he said. "They just spread the $25 between more vendors."

But opening new markets is also risky. It's challenging to find a place with visibility and foot traffic, in a neighborhood where people will make it a part of their weekly routine. And, Glyn said, "it takes about three or four years for a market to hit its stride. A lot of businesses can't wait that long."

Farm to City has shut down markets it started at Drexel University, at the Porch at 30th Street Station, and at 40th and Walnut Streets. Its Bala Cynwyd Farmers' Market is on hiatus this year while organizers look for a more conducive location.

But Glyn is trying new markets elsewhere, including at Powers Park in Port Richmond. He's also changing up the mix of vendors at Dilworth Park, which struggled in its inaugural season. This year's lineup includes McCann's Farm produce, Philly Bread, and Mahogany Essentials soaps.

There's a similar situation in Whitemarsh, near Conshohocken, where Ben Bergman has been busy reshuffling the lineup for the second year of the Spring Mill Farmers' Market.

"We have yoga in the morning, and we've brought in some different vendors that we think would interest the millennial crowd: wine, gourmet cheese, high-end sausage," he said. "But the jury's still out."

Bergman started working at markets in 2010, after reading the Michael Pollan book The Omnivore's Dilemma. "I was like, 'Wow, our food system is kind of messed up,' " he said.

He started his own business, Greener Pastures, in 2013. He took over the Ambler Farmers' Market, which he calls a success. Last year, he launched the Far Northeast Farmers' Market in Somerton. It lasted one season.

"You need support when you first start a farmers' market," he said. "You really need to have the community behind it. And if the vendors aren't making enough, then it's not going to be worth it to them to keep coming back."

A new market, he said, can only support a few vendors - but some customers want it to look like Headhouse on day one.

On the other hand, some small markets are surviving - and bringing local produce to low-income neighborhoods - with a little help. The Food Trust, a nonprofit with a food-justice mission, in 2010 introduced Philly Food Bucks. With it, people who use government food assistance to buy at the market get a $2 voucher for every $5 they spend. Since then, food-assistance sales have increased 300 percent, to $54,685 last year.

The ultimate guide to farmers' markets in the Philadelphia area.

Farmers like Wenk, of Three Springs Fruit Farm, may not get a large chunk of those sales. But farmers' markets remain valuable because he can charge more there than he can selling to processors or packers.

These days, though, he has to work harder for it.

"Our sales each year used to increase while we were basically doing the same thing," he said. "Now, markets are more competitive, and there are more markets overall, so you have to pay attention to the details: Having really nice displays and fresh tablecloths, and being able to explain to customers nine ways to cook baby eggplant."

But the sense of community at the market makes it worth it, he said.

"When you're growing for processing or wholesale, all anyone wants to do is beat you up on price," he said. "Here, people come up and thank my dad for being a farmer."



Roasted Strawberry Ice Cream


Makes 6 servings


2¼ pounds strawberries, hulled

1 cup granulated sugar

1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise

2 strips of lemon peel


Fine-mesh nylon sieve

Ice cream maker

Plastic freezer-safe container


1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Put the strawberries in an ovenproof ceramic dish or a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Toss with ¼ cup of the sugar and tuck one half of the vanilla bean and the lemon peels in with the berries. Cook on the middle rack of the oven for about 40 minutes until slumped and juicy. Discard the vanilla bean half and the peel, and transfer the strawberries and all of their juice into the bowl of a food processor and blend until smooth.

2. Heat the cream and milk with the remaining half vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium heat until just below boiling point. Meanwhile, using a hand-held mixer, beat together the remaining ¾ cup of sugar and the egg yolks in a bowl until very pale and thick. Add the hot cream mixture in a steady stream, beating constantly until smooth. Return to the pan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon, but don't allow it to boil, otherwise the eggs may scramble. Strain through a fine-mesh nylon sieve into a clean bowl and let cool completely, then thoroughly chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours but preferably overnight.

3. Whisk three-quarters of the strawberry purée into the custard and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Scoop the ice cream into a plastic freezer-safe container and very lightly stir through the remaining strawberry purée - it should still be visible in riples. Cover and freeze until firm.

- From Summer Berries and Autumn Fruit (Kyle Books, 2016)

Per serving: 297 calories, 2 grams protein, 48 grams carbohydrates, 43 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 43 milligrams cholesterol, 21 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Grilled Asparagus, Taleggio, and Fried Egg Panini


Makes 2 servings


1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon each: fresh chives, fresh mint leaves, chopped

8 small to medium asparagus spears (see Notes), trimmed

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

4 ounces Taleggio cheese

1 cup baby arugula


1. Heat a grill pan (or a large skillet) over medium-high heat.

2. Meanwhile, whisk together the lemon juice and zest, salt, pepper, olive oil, chives, and mint in a large bowl. Add the asparagus and toss until the spears are evenly coated.

3. Use tongs to lift the asparagus spears from the marinade and transfer them to the hot grill pan. Grill the spears, turning as needed to ensure they cook evenly, until they become golden on the outside and are tender through the center but still slightly crisp, 2 to 5 minutes on each side, depending on the thickness. Pull the asparagus from the pan and toss them back in the marinade. Let them stand at room temperature. (Alternatively, store cooled asparagus and marinate in an airtight container and refrigerate overnight. Bring to room temp before proceeding.)

4. Heat the vegetable oil in a medium-size nonstick skillet over medium heat. Swirl the pan to coat the bottom and crack the eggs into the skillet one at a time. Season the eggs lightly with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook until the whites are set and the yolks are still runny, about 2 minutes. For slightly firmer yolks, carefully flip the eggs with a spatula and let them cook to your liking. Transfer the eggs to a plate and set aside.

5. Melt the butter in the same nonstick skillet over medium heat. Swirl the pan to coat the bottom with the butter and any remaining oil and place the bread in the skillet. Pull apart the Taleggio and dot each piece of bread with 3 to 4 small pieces, making sure to spread them out. Cook, uncovered, until the cheese melts, 3 to 4 minutes.

6. To assemble the sandwiches, divide the asparagus spears, fried eggs, and arugula between 2 pieces of the bread. Drizzle the other 2 pieces of bread with any remaining marinade and herbs, and use them to top the stacked pieces, cheese side down. Gently press the sandwiches together with an offset spatula. Cut the sandwiches in half with a sharp chef's knife or serrated knife, and transfer them to individual serving plates immediately.

Notes: Avoid large or jumbo asparagus spears (they are too thick for this sandwich) or cut them in half lengthwise if needed. Do not use pencil-thin asparagus, as they tend to burn on a grill pan, and they do not provide a meaty bite.

If you don't own a grill pan or skillet, you can roast the asparagus on a baking sheet or grill the asparagus on an outdoor grill over medium heat, following the same procedure above.

- From The Vegetable Butcher (Workman, 2016)

Per serving: 553 calories, 34 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 29 grams fat, 257 milligrams cholesterol, 891 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Roasted Beets and Beluga Lentils


Serves 6 to 7 as a vegan center-of-the plate dish


2 pounds beets

4 ounces carrots, finely diced

3 cloves garlic

1 dried chili de árbol

6 to 8 ounces tender beet greens or rainbow chard

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large red onion (8-9 ounces), quartered and thinly sliced

1 recipe Agave Lemon Vinaigrette (see note)

Plenty of freshly ground black pepper


½-1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest


1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Scrub the beets and trim off the greens, leaving an inch of the stalks. Wrap the damp beets in heavy-duty aluminum foil, crimping it to make a sealed packet, and roast them for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on their size. They should be tender enough to be easily pierced with a fork. Let them cool a bit, then slip off their skins, trim off the stalks, and cut them into ½-inch dice; you should have about 3½ cups.

2. Bring 7 to 8 cups water to a boil with 2 teaspoons salt and add the lentils, diced carrots, garlic cloves, and chili. Simmer the lentils for 25 minutes until they are tender but still firm. Drain the lentils (and keep the broth for soup). Discard the chili and garlic. Spread the lentils and carrots on a baking sheet to cool and set them aside.

3. Wash the beet greens or chard, trim off only the thick lower stalks, cut the leaves in half lengthwise if they are large, then cut them into ¼-inch strips.

4. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a nonstick skillet and sear the onion in it with ¼ teaspoon salt, tossing over high heat until the onion is softened, blistered, and shows brown spots, 6 to 7 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar, turn off the heat, and stir quickly as the vinegar sizzles away. Add the onions to the diced beets in a large mixing bowl. In the same skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté the damp beet greens in it with a pinch of salt, tossing them over high heat just until they are completely wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the beet greens to the beet mixture.

5. Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the vinaigrette over the salad along with the pepper and orange zest, and mix. Add the lentils to the bowl and mix again, gently. Taste, and add more lemon juice or salt if needed, but once you have added the lentils, do not overmix. Add the remaining dressing just before serving the salad to get that lovely, glistening look. Serve the salad on its own or piled on a bed of bright green watercress or baby arugula.

- From Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore (Norton, 2016)

Per serving (based on 7): 316 calories, 13 grams protein, 42 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, no cholesterol, 922 milligrams sodium, 15 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Fennel and Asparagus Ribbon Slaw


Makes 6 to 8 servings as a side salad


2 to 3 large fennel bulbs (about 1 pound)

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil


1. Trim the fennel bulbs, peeling down the tough outer layer, and cut the green stalks down to about 2 inches. Use a mandoline to shave the fennel into paper-thin ribbons. You should have at least 4 cups, loosely packed. Pour the lemon juice over the shaved fennel to keep it from turning brown.

2. Rinse the asparagus and snap off the tough bottoms of the stalks. You should have about 12 ounces of trimmed asparagus, to yield about 3 cups when sliced. Use your sharpest knife to slice the stalks thinly on a deep slant and reserve the tips.

3. Combine all the ingredients in an ample bowl and toss gently. Taste, and adjust the salt or lemon if needed. Scatter the reserved asparagus tips over the top as a pretty garnish, or mix them into the salad.

- From Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore (Norton, 2016)

Per serving: 123 calories, 5 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, no cholesterol, 155 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.EndText