Tonawanda News


August 22, 2010

Farmers’ markets compete for business even during ‘buy local’ craze

NORTH TONAWANDA — With the emphasis among the nation’s foodies being placed on locally grown foods, the questions begs to be asked: How much stock do Tonawandans put in foods created in their backyard?

The answer depends on who you ask.

The customers of local farmers’ markets agree that the quality and freshness of the produce available at such markets is unsurpassed. But the vendors and organizers of farmers’ markets feel that, while sales are starting to rebound, people have turned away from local markets in recent years.

With two bags full of corn in tow following a recent visit, Don Butkuss proudly placed himself among the North Tonawanda Farmers’ Market’s faithful. The Lewiston resident by way of Boston ventures to the Lumber City about once per week to avail himself of the market’s wares.

“I have visitors coming in, and I want to give them a treat,” said Butkuss, his Boston accent still evident in his voice despite having lived in Niagara County for four years. “They won’t get this type of corn in Massachusetts.”

But not even an influx of Bay Staters can revive a slight slowing in sales. Ron Rybarczak, owner of Sunnyside Farms in Cambria, has been a vendor at the NT market for nearly 30 years and has seen business slip away of late.

“This last year has been slower for sure,” he said while his daughter, Kathleen, and son, John tended to customers on a Thursday afternoon.

Diane McGinnis, who was helping to vend the produce from Faery Farms in Ransomville, echoed that sentiment but cautioned that Saturdays are busier days. And even amidst a dreary sky and intermittent raindrops on this afternoon, McGinnis saw what she considered to be a decent amount of business.

“Something about the people in North Tonawanda — they tend to come out whether it’s raining or not,” McGinnis said.

That may be, but market clerk John Long acknowledged that not as many people have come out this year to patronize the market’s 35 or so vendors, some of whom only rent space on Saturdays.

“I think money’s a little tighter this year,” he said. “There are crowds there, but they’re not buying as much.”

That’s also the case at the Kenmore Farmers’ Market, which at eight years old is in its salad days compared to its 102-year-old NT counterpart. Volunteer coordinator Katie Burd said that a recent surge in discount grocers in the Town of Tonawanda has piggy-backed on the slumping economy to help drag down market sales. Aldi, Budwey’s, Price Rite and Save-a-Lot have all entered the Tonawanda/northern Buffalo region in the past few years.

“The Ken-Ton area is very oversaturated with discount grocery stores. That is probably one of the market’s biggest challenges to overcome,” she said. “There are people who want to come and support local businesses ... but there are people who know that they can spend a little bit less at these markets.”

Since taking charge of the market three years ago, Burd has brought in vendors of gourmet pasta, coffee, baked goods and hand-crafted chocolates in an effort to diversify the offerings.

“I wanted to use the community a lot. We have a lot to offer in the village,” said Burd, who said that the 12-vendor market was down to only a few sellers when she was asked to take over by Mayor Patrick Mang.

The eclectic offerings also include weekly music offerings and a vintage car show the market recently co-hosted.

“We try to attract customers, and then they can see that there’s a lot to offer,” Burd said. “We’re not NT, and we really never will be. We’re a small market, and that’s why we can do a couple different things. We have a niche.”

Not that North Tonawanda is simply about fruits and vegetables, of course. The NT market offers wine and sausage vendors through the week, as well as waffle cake, craft and other specialty vendors on Saturdays. Long has also once again requested funds from the city budget (requests in past years were denied) and is working on a website for the market that would be operational by next year.

“We’re always looking to bring new people in, get the word out,” he said.

But like any other business, nothing will help the word get out like the product.

“Farmers’ markets are still a great place for finding a variety of locally grown, fresh produce and getting to know the people who work hard to deliver it,” said John Farfaglia, an educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County, in an e-mail.

That product is what’s kept Pat Giardino — who grew up on a farm in northeastern Niagara County — coming to the NT market for 42 years.

“You can’t beat it for quality and price,” she said as she made her way to her car with bags full of corn, tomatoes and potatoes. “I like to support the farmers.”

“Most of our farmers here, they have it just as tough as everyone else,” concurred Butkuss. “Shopping here keeps our economy going.”

Many of Niagara County’s 865 farms, as compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2008 farm census, rely on farmer’s market sales to stay afloat (Erie County has 1,215 farms, according to the same census). And while several farms at a given market might offer the same produce, each grower brings his own touch to the product.

“I think it’s a more personal buying experience unique from other retail sources,” Farfaglia said.

That, according to Burd, is why farmers’ markets should be a part of everyone’s shopping itinerary.

“Yes, maybe you can go to Aldi and your produce will be a little bit cheaper, but it’s not in season,” she said. “Produce at the market today was picked yesterday.”

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