COMMERCIAL TOWNSHIP - There is a rich, yet hardscrabble heritage of farming and seafaring in this southwestern corner of Cumberland County that defines this region so poignantly that you can taste it.
And every Wednesday between now and the end of November, a new endeavor called the Bivalve Fishermen & Farmers Market allows you to actually bring home that bounty of locally harvested farm produce and briny oysters and other seafood caught in the Delaware Bay.
The market will be held Wednesdays through Nov. 23 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Bayshore Center at Bivalve in the Port Norris section of the township. The market is so named for the tiny fishing village where the center is located.
Besides the gathering of individual booths selling seasonal vegetables, fruits, flowers, and seafood that are usually found at farmer's markets, this one will also offer visitors a chance to have a look inside the museum. It features exhibits and art pertaining to the local maritime history, live music from regional artists, and classes in sushi making or oyster shucking. The facility also serves as the homeport for New Jersey's tall ship, the A.J. Meerwald, a circa 1928 oyster schooner that once plied the bay.
The center is set upon one of New Jersey's last remaining working waterfronts on the picturesque Maurice River and the Delaware Bay Museum & Folk Life Center is located within restored oyster shipping sheds that were once an integral part of a thriving fishery that previously netted millions of dollars for the local economy.
"This is probably one of the most authentic markets of its kind that you will find anywhere, not just in New Jersey but really in the entire country," said Doug Fisher, secretary of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, who was on hand to inaugurate the opening on Sept. 21 of the weekly market. "There is really nothing more representative of this region that what you will find right here . . . it's truly extraordinary."
Markets like this one are thriving in New Jersey and across the U.S. - about 4,800 in total nationwide - because of growing consumer interest in obtaining fresh food directly from the growers. Direct marketing of fresh products through farmers markets continues to be an important outlet for agricultural producers nationwide, Fisher said.
Experts contend that food in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles to get from farm to table. All that shipping uses huge amounts of fossil fuel and other natural resources and ultimately contributes to pollution, including additional trash that is created by the shipping and packaging necessary for such means.
Fisher said that while the drive to it may be a bit out of the way - about 15 miles south of Millville - the additional appeal of the Bivalve market is that it is located in a "real place."
"I think that so many times people seek out experiences by going to places that are recreations of a place, ala Disney World," Fisher said. "And not to knock Disney, but this is a real place that has truly kept its place in time and is located in the middle of an ecological splendor. So it's worth a visit on so many levels."
Meghan Wren, executive director of the Bayshore Center, said the idea for the market had been in the works for several years.
"But we were just never able to put together the funding to make it happen," Wren said.
But when the center was able to obtain a $40,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year, it was able to schedule the weekly event and use much of the money to advertise it through direct mailings and print advertising.
Wren said about 400 to 500 people showed up for the market's debut and that could mean that it will become an annual event.
"We know that most people have to drive out of their way to get here," Wren said. "So we need be a destination and I think that we are because they can certainly find amazing produce and seafood to take home, but this is also a place where they want to come to really experience what this region is about."
That's what led Lisa Snyder, of Washington Township, Gloucester County, to bring her daughter and granddaughter to the market on the first Wednesday it was held.
"We brought our cooler with us in the car so we can buy some oysters and other stuff and then enjoy the museum and music before we head home," Snyder said. "I've been down here before, but my daughter has never has. And it's just a really special, really different kind of place. It was definitely worth the drive for us."
That was music to the ears of vendors like Steve Fleetwood, owner of Bivalve Packing Co., which brought in fresh oysters for the market and routinely supplies seafood for the Bayshore Center's café.
"I think that when people find out about the heritage of this area, they are even more impressed with the product that we produce," Fleetwood said. "We've got a great product and a strong heritage that is allowing oysters to become a sustainable fishery here again."
Wren said that about a dozen vendors signed on for the first market and each subsequent market will have even more booths and products, including local honey, herbs, baked goods, crafts, and other items.
While some individual booths offer take-and-eat foods and beverages, guests can also dine at the center's Oyster Cracker Café, which features oyster chowder and other seafood dishes. More information about the market or the center, located at 2800 High St., Port Norris, may be obtained at bayshorecenter.org or by calling 856-785-2060.