Local farmer’s market keeps things fresh

Produce grown at Russo’s Orchard Lane farm is sold at the Trenton Farmer’s Market, located only 1.3 miles away from the College. (Katie Occhipinti / Staff Writer)

Russo’s Orchard Lane Farm is stirring at 5:30 a.m. Preparations for the day ahead have already begun. Eight farm hands, including fourth-generation farmer Michael Russo, head out to their 250-acre farm to pick this season’s offerings. They then carefully load the trucks before heading off to a long day at the market.

Sound like a scene from a remote location in the countryside, far from the urban life of Trenton? Believe it or not, this is a day in the life of one of the 10 farmers that make their living at the Trenton Farmer’s Market, located only 1.3 miles away from the College.

At first glance, this open-air market, home to 40 different businesses, is mesmerizing. The vibrancy and abundance of produce shines through in the form of Ripe Red tomatoes, peppers in every shape and color and ears of corn that line produce stands on both sides. However, the history here is more deeply rooted than anything being sold.

As alumni of Trenton State College, Jack and Marcia Ball, co-managers of the market, happily agreed to meet with me as soon as I mentioned the College. Jack (’72) and wife Marcia (’65) both began their careers as teachers. Jack later went on to become mayor of Ewing Township in 1992, 1993 and then again from 2007 to 2010. Marcia focused on raising her children and started a job at the market when they were grown.

“When the managerial position opened, we decided to take it. That was 32 years ago and the rest is history,” Jack said.

After I spoke with Jack, Marcia arrived with ears of corn and freshly popped popcorn that she had just purchased at the market only steps away from their office. “Here she goes again, spending all my money at the market,” Jack joked.

The Trenton Farmer’s Market began its long history way before Jack and Marcia made it into the establishment it is today. In the 1900s, farmers chose this area as the perfect place to set up shop. In 1939, farmers got together and formed The Trenton Market Growers Co-op Association, Inc. and purchased land on Spruce Street in Lawrence Township. In 1948, they were officially open for business.

All it takes is one visit to feel that this place has a heartbeat of its own.

“The real attractiveness of the market is not just the freshness and quality of the produce. We also offer a diverse selection of Italian, German and Polish products such as meats, cheeses and baked goods,” Jack said.

As I stood with Nikki Russo, wife of fourth-generation farmer Michael Russo, her busy hands did not skip a beat, unpacking and sorting through hundreds of apples. With the number of customers that referred to her by her first name, she did not have to say much about the bond shared by the farmers and this community. “See? We are more than just farmers. We are friends,” Russo said.

Although farmer’s markets are popping up all over the state, Trenton Farmer’s Market “is the only location in New Jersey where farmers can only sell produce that they have personally raised,” Russo said.

Hot peppers are among the colorful varieties of vegetables for sale at the market. (Katie Occhipinti / Staff Writer)

The college diet consisting of ramen noodles and microwavable dinners is a thing of the past. The number of College students who now have access to their own kitchen is growing, whether in an off-campus house or in the new dorms. College is not only the place to learn calculus and chemistry but a great place to begin fostering a healthy lifestyle and learning how to shop and cook for ourselves. If you have a question about how to pick out a ripe piece of fruit or how to cook an unfamiliar vegetable, why not ask the farmer who grew it?

Need an added incentive to get to the market? How about a “Jersey Fresh Day,” where the market hands out up to 1,000 free deserts? Stop by on Oct. 15 and enjoy a free, freshly sliced apple, drizzled with warm caramel and topped with crushed nuts.

Does a carrot that is picked mere hours ago taste different than a carrot that has been shipped on a truck for days? You can be the judge. Personally, I have committed to buying all of my produce from the market only. Beyond the health component, there is something special about shaking hands with the farmer that has personally cared for your fruits and vegetables. At the Trenton Farmer’s Market, food shopping is not a chore — it is an experience that should be shared with family and friends.

For more information, be sure to visit thetrentonfarmersmarket.com and russosorchard.com.