Last Thursday, it took Casey Noss three hours to get to work.
The commute was longer than usual. Noss said it normally takes him two hours to get from his 11-acre estate in Sinking Spring, Pa., to the Port Richmond farmers market where he sells his home-grown fruits, vegetables, eggs and dairy products — but this time there was traffic.
“I was a little late, but it happens,” said Noss, the owner of Goose Lane Egg Farm. “We left at the same time. It just took a lot longer.”
He tries to get to the market an hour before it opens. Last week Noss got there with only 15 minutes to spare, and his regular customers noticed.
An older Port Richmond woman with a thick Philly accent gave him trouble at checkout. “You came late today! I kept checking — Is the truck out front yet? No. Is the truck out front yet? No. I said, ‘I don’t know, they’re not here.’”
Noss started selling in Philly two years ago. In the two summers since then, he’s built up a strong base of regular customers. This summer, he makes it to two Philly-area markets every week: The one in Port Richmond’s Powers Park on Thursdays, and one in Bryn Mawr across from Ludington Library on Saturdays.
He estimates the Bryn Mawr market alone accounts for half his farm’s income.
This is the story for many of the farmers and food artisans who travel from faraway rural communities to sell their products in the city. Many farmers depend on an organization called Farm to City to sell their goods and keep their farms alive. Along the way, they make lasting connections in Philly neighborhoods.
“All of our produce comes here,” said Emily Rohrer, an employee at Rineer Family Farms in Lancaster County. “The only stuff that’s left at home, we have one wholesaler at home who we sell to, and he doesn’t buy much.”
“If we didn’t come to Philly,” said Anita McCann of McCann’s Farm in Elk Township, New Jersey, “we would’ve lost our farm.”
Expanding Philly’s local food options
Jon Glyn, the farmers market program manager at Farm to City, works one-on-one with farmers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to launch new outposts in Philly. Glyn runs 13 weekly markets over the summer and four in the winter in places like Rittenhouse Square, Roxborough and South Philly. This is all part of the organization’s larger goal: To bring more local food to Philadelphia.
“Our venues are meant to be lucrative markets for the food vendors,” Glyn said. “We look for neighborhoods that are already interested in local food, that have a tradition of cooking from scratch and that can support a farmers market.”
Last winter, the Powers Park Conservancy — a neighborhood association in Port Richmond — approached Farm to City and asked the organization to open a farmers market in the park. Glyn went through all the necessary steps: Get letters of support from the neighborhood, obtain permits from the city and secure parking passes for farmers from the streets department.
This summer, the Port Richmond farmers market opened for the first time.
“We had a great first year,” Glyn said. “We have customers there, residents, neighbors, that come every week.”
All the Farm to City markets accept Women, Infants and Children program checks and Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program vouchers. The farmers market at Dickinson Square Park accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program checks, and other vendors — like McCann’s Farm — accept SNAP independently at other market locations.
“The markets are really humbling,” McCann said. “You meet a lot of people who really appreciate you being there.”
Becoming ‘part of their neighborhood’
There’s no question that farmers develop close relationships with their regular customers. But in a city like Philadelphia, those relationships can be complicated.
“You have the people that come and they pull out, ‘I have $20 of Farmers’ Market Nutrition vouchers. Give me $20 of peaches,’” McCann said. “Like, you’re not going to eat $20 worth of peaches. Why would you do that? This makes no sense.”
McCann has had some customers insult her produce and others try to steal it when she wasn’t looking, which can be disheartening after her 40-minute commute to sell her goods in the city.
“It just grates your nerves, especially when you’re doing something nice,” McCann said.
“It’s hard to please the people around here,” Rohrer said. “Most people, anyway, because a lot of them are old and stubborn and stuck in their ways.”
Rohrer drives almost two hours to sell her produce at the Rittenhouse Square farmers market, where she said customers can get on her nerves.
“A lot of times people will complain about our meat prices, and I’m like, ‘I don’t really think you understand,’” Rohrer said. “Making hay is like a whole huge production. You need like six kinds of farm machinery to do that, plus a tractor, just to feed your animals over the winter.”
But Glyn has also seen how close farmers and customers can get. He’s heard customers ask farmers about their families and what they’re doing for the holidays. He’s even seen some regulars jump behind the counter at markets when they get busy to help move along the lines.
“That’s really heartwarming,” Glyn said. “A lot of our regular customers are on a first-name basis with the farmers that grow their food, and they can’t say that about the people that sell them food in the grocery stores.”
McCann has experienced similar acts of kindness: Her regular customers in Roxborough hug her at almost every market. They’ll text her early in the day and ask her to save them some of their favorite produce. McCann has one regular customer at a market on 22nd and Tasker who buys something different every week, goes home, cooks it and brings it back to the farmers market for her to taste.
“We try to integrate ourselves in the neighborhood so that we become a part of their neighborhood, not just somebody who shows up once a week and takes their money,” McCann said.
Rohrer said most of the people she meets in Rittenhouse Square are nice — many of them know the names of her husband and two children. Plus, she thinks it’s worth the occasional customer-induced headache to bring fresh food to Philadelphia.
“If you eat a California raspberry and then you come and try one of my raspberries, you’ll faint from flavor,” Rohrer said. “It’s fresh from the farm. It has flavor. Everybody is used to not having anything that tastes good.”
“We like the idea of people from outside the city, these farmers who might come from more traditional or more pastoral towns, coming into the city, and if it’s done right, they meet each other,” Glyn said. “You know the people that grow your food, and that the people who grew the food know that they’re growing it for certain families.”