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Why do Boston area farmer's markets suck?

  • j

I saw a blurb this morning that Massachusetts wine will finally be allowed to be sold at farmer's markets in Massachusetts. Of course, they have to get a liquor license (impossible!) and card everyone who tastes (because of all the 18 year olds that have been known to frequent farmers markets to get drunk off of a 1 oz sample of wine. Oh joy.

This got me thinking, why do our farmer's markets suck so much?

Here are my gripes:

1) They don't have much variety. While not every market can be like the one in Union Square (NYC), I've been to farmer's markets all over, including places like Cleveland and Schenectady that blow anything in the Boston area out of the water. You can find multiple vendors with meats, cheeses, breads, pastas, herbs, ice cream, honey, jarred/pickled food, etc.
2) There aren’t many open on the weekends.
3) They are only seasonal. If there was more variety, they could stay open through the winter.

Maybe I’m just not going to the right ones. (Admittedly, I haven’t been to the South End Open Market, but doing anything in the south end that requires parking is a huge inconvenience to those who aren’t nearby) Maybe it’s because the area has so many farms in the community. But it would be great to see a large one open somewhere on the weekends with 30-40+ stalls.

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  1. Wow--that's pretty harsh, but I guess it's all what you're looking for in a farmer's market. I'm pretty happy with the markets I have access to here (Dewey Square, Union Square, Harvard Square), although I have seen much bigger markets in much smaller towns, including Bloomington, Indiana. Personally, I would get overwhelmed by 40 stalls. Heck, I even get overwhelmed at the Union Square (Somerville) market, which I believe has a lot of variety packed into a relatively small number of stalls: fruit-focused stands, veggie-focused stands (including a couple organic ones), fresh cheese (Fiore di Nonno), chocolate (Taza), meats (can't remember the name), bread (Iggy's), baked goods, and occasionally a guest stall with prepared foods.

    Perhaps I am not as disappointed as you because I am most interested in fruits and veggies when I go to a farmer's market, whereas your wish list had nothing to do with fruits or veggies. I tend to get unhappy when markets start to veer too far in the direction of prepared foods and treats rather than stuff that is close to the ground. I can get great cheese, breads, pasta, etc. in other markets around town, but I can't easily get locally-grown, seasonal produce that was picked that morning (i.e. fresh corn), nor in such variety as I can find at the markets

    So it's just a matter of what you want out of your market.

    1 Reply
    1. re: bella_sarda

      Winchester has a pretty good variety, too - not multiple vendors for each category, but Taza, Fiore di Nonno, Mamadou's breads, fish, lobsters, meat (they sell out FAST) and guest stalls with teas, herbal whatnot, etc. There's a candy lady there sometimes - very pricey stuff but really good brittles. They're open on Saturdays and you can usually find parking nearby.


    2. I have to agree, not a lot of farmers markets in the Boston area and definitely not on the wknds. I did read there is some indoor farmer's market being constructed somewhere near Downtown Crossing/chinatown (don't quote me).

      1 Reply
      1. re: surferbettygal

        It's actually supposed to be near haymarket I think, where there is currently a parking garage

      2. MA has literally dozens of small markets geographically distributed all over the place which I think is amazing.

        The breadth of some of the ones you refer to would be delightful, but to live essentially anywhere in MA and have SEVERAL markets a week within 10-15 minutes away almost anywhere in the state is pretty amazing and unparalleled:


        That said, the focus really is on seasonal fruit and veg, period, which works for me. The Hmong farmers which are at many stands have the most amazing Asian veggies I have ever seen anywhere, including Union Sq. NYC, which is paramount for me. I love veg.

        Go to either the Brookline or Newton Markets to see the very best, but again mostly fruit and veg with some cheese, wild mushrooms, fish, and meat thrown in for good measure. Again not 30 vendors, and mostly fruit and veg.

        With regard to alcohol, just be happy we don' have SC liquor laws or worse...

        1 Reply
        1. re: StriperGuy

          I wish the Hmong would come to the Copley Square market.

        2. I agree with bella_sarda, it depends what you are looking for in a Farmer's Market.

          Me, I go on Wednesday and Saturday, to Davis Square and Union Square (because these are ones I can walk to) and get my fruits, vegetables and herbs for the week. There are plenty of small markets that carry pasta, honey, jarred food, etc in my area (and beyond) so I don't feel a need to have a separate stall for them at the Farmers Market.

          1 Reply
          1. re: LeoLioness

            Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I wonder why JoeM goes to farmer's markets at all, when he could get everything he is looking for (wine, ice cream, honey, meat, cheese, pasta, etc), in one place, year round, at Whole Foods. If you take out the seasonal component and start focusing on prepared foods, then that's really what you're looking at, a substitute for a supermarket that has the ambience of a farmer's market but that really has not much to do with farmers selling their produce.

          2. When I lived in Ithaca, NY, I got used to the style of farmer's market that the OP is talking about: a big structure with many, many stalls, typically open weekends and maybe one weekday, with a mix of fruit/veg, prepared foods (including lunch food), and crafts. But even though no single market in the Boston area has the diversity by itself of a central market, the aggregate total of vendors across the famer's markets I frequent in the Boston area (Davis Square, Union Square, Harvard Square, Dewey Square, Kendall Square with varying degrees of regularity) is probably on par with what I was used to in Ithaca (and this is despite upstate New York being some of the best agricultural lands in the Northeast). It is true there isn't much in the way of prepared goods (although Taza chocolate, Narragansett Creamery, and Fiore di Nonna go to many markets, many farms sell honey and jams of various kinds, and most farmer's markets have at least one meat vendor, often more), but there are tons of places to get that kind of thing around here, so why use up limited space at the farmer's market for those kinds of goods?

            It sounds like what the OP wants is not a farmer's market, but a central public market (like the central markets in cities like Barcelona, Seattle, San Francisco, etc). It is true that Boston does not have this, although there is a group trying to bring a central public market back to Boston: http://www.bostonpublicmarket.org/

            6 Replies
            1. re: greenzebra

              I agree. The OP wants something like DC's Central Market or the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, and no, we don't have that, although I dearly wish we did and I have my fingers crossed that the greenway market gets off the ground.

              But public markets and farmers markets are NOT the same thing, which I'm not sure the OP quite understands. In particular, this criticism:

              "3) They are only seasonal. If there was more variety, they could stay open through the winter."

              Well...yes, they're seasonal. They are FARMERS markets. So by definition, they will be open during the growing season. In eastern Massachusetts, that means they open around Memorial Day and close around Halloween. If the OP wants to buy strawberries in January, he can do that at Russo's (or even Haymarket), but they won't have been grown anywhere around New England!

              Blackstone St, Boston, MA

              1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                I would love to see a market like the one I visited on Granville Island in Vancouver. Lots of cured and fresh meat, cheese, baked goods, fresh fish and veggies. But the part I liked best was the vendor samples and the food stands - my wife and I would head over there for "breakfast" every morning. In some sort of twisted way, Costco on a Saturday afternoon strikes me as the same kind of vibe - except the samples, snacks, and wares aren't as good quality.

                1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                  Thank you Jenny and greenzebra for making the distinction between public/central markets and farmer's markets. You sharpened the point I was trying to make.

                  1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                    Those are the two I immediately thought of as well.

                  2. re: greenzebra

                    Sniff, sniff, sob... the Boqueria market in Barcelona. Ohmygoodness would give several of my toes AND one pinky finger to have that in Boston.

                    1. re: StriperGuy

                      I feel your pain. That and the Borough Market of London and the Jean Talon Market in Montreal are fabulous markets. Maybe Farmers' markets are the first step to get to those kinds of markets.

                  3. One other note, I just don't know that many farms making artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, etc in MA period. We are a relatively small state compare to NY, etc. etc.

                    16 Replies
                    1. re: StriperGuy

                      In other countries a lot of those items are made by butchers and co-ops, not necessarily farms. And we do have a variety of things like that in the state: the various smokehouses (including the various Portuguese ones on the south shore, dry cured portuguese hams from Central MA, Karl's, morcilla from el paisa, others in central european traditions in western ma), some cheese makers not represented at farmers markets (Gigi's in Everett, martin's in westport, some apparently local columbian and salvadoran cheeses (maybe from NH, not so clear), also I have seen homemade coalhada/cuajada). I think some of these products could do well at farmers markets, but there are hurdles to getting such vendors there and issues with market by-laws regarding local vs non material.

                        1. re: itaunas

                          Where the heck DO you get those cured Portuguese hams?

                          1. re: StriperGuy

                            They can be ordered through Courthouse seafood in Cambridge and come from a Central MA linguica/chourico maker. In Cambridge (aside from maybe a non-local product at Seabra) you have to order the whole ham and non-Easter availability is a bit limited. I don't want to post my recollection of which producer it is because its been 4+ years and I am prone to mix such things up, but will confirm this info.

                          2. re: itaunas

                            Are there rules forbidding out-of-state purveyors in Boston farmers markets? One of the strengths of a place like the Union Sq. Greenmarket is that it pulls in sellers from NJ and Conn., in addition to ones from NY. You can get the excellent Cato Corner cheeses from Colchester, Conn., for example, at Union Sq. Colchester is roughly midway between Boston and NY, so they could just as easily sell their stuff at farmers markets here (instead of just at Formaggio, etc.), but I don't think they do.

                            I agree with those who say that these markets are primarily about the produce. The NY markets generally outshine the Boston ones in this department, too, I'm afraid. I got very good tomatoes in Boston this summer, but superb ones in NY. Ditto for peaches. The ones in NY this summer were better even than ones I've had at farmers markets in CA.

                            Another (and final) thing I find a little odd about the Boston markets is how they recycle some of the same material: I go to farmers markets to get stuff I can't get elsewhere, not to hop from Iggy's to Hi-Rise to Sofra.

                            1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

                            1. re: FoodDabbler

                              Better peaches are just about warmer weather, likewise on the tomatoes.

                              1. re: StriperGuy

                                Did you guys miss the Nicewicz Farm peaches this year? I got them at the Belmont farmer's market and they were outstanding. I'm not claiming they are better than the ones at Union Sq in NY as I know NJ produces amazing peaches. I'm just saying the Nicewicz ones are the best I've had in MA and I wouldn't judge what an MA peach tastes like compared to a NY/NJ peach until you've had their peach.

                                1. re: heypielady

                                  I actually had pretty amazing peaches across the board this summer, but generally acknowledge that peaches, like say watermelon, like things HOT.

                                  1. re: StriperGuy

                                    Yeah, the peaches from Mississippi that a family friend sent to us the summer my parents died were the best I've EVER had, and I'm sure the NJ ones were in fact better than the more northerly ones we had around here, but overall this was the best summer for local peaches in quite some years. I miss them already!

                              2. re: FoodDabbler

                                The State of MA regulations regarding farmer's markets do not address the local vs non-local, but many farmer's markets have by-laws and although there is a common draft used by many, you have to understand these market-by-market to know the restrictions regarding products of local and non-local origin. That said, anything that is not fresh produce, eggs, maple syrup or unprocessed honey is considered processed foods and subject to local licensing. This would add additional steps for a cheese seller and can vary from town-to-town. Just like Wilson Farms sells produce from all over the world, there are a few farmers markets vendors which have sold conventional non-MA produce at markets where its permitted -- this seems to be fewer and far between and one thing which surprises me is you don't see the origin labeling at farmers markets which retail supermarkets are required to display by law.

                                As far as Cato Corner cheeses, you will have to ask them. I would think the Union Sq Farmer's market is a no-brainer: potentially profitable, helps get the product known nationally and likewise dealing with Formaggio on a Wholesale basis (smaller gross margin, but presumably good business). Do the Copley Sq Market or SoWa markets make similar sense business wise if such products are permitted, at least so far not, and I am not aware of any farmers market pushing to bring in such products.

                                Wilson Farm
                                10 Pleasant St, Lexington, MA 02421

                                1. re: FoodDabbler

                                  I am fairly certain I have seen Vermont maple syrup for sale at the Dewey Square market, so it would seem that out-of-state product is not forbidden.

                                  1. re: stomachofsteel

                                    There's maple syrup for sale at several markets - I usually buy mine at the Brookline one - but I'm fairly certain that most or all of it is Massachusetts-made.

                                    However, there are definitely out-of-state vendors, such as Narragansett Creamery from RI, who sell cheeses at Copley on Tuesdays, and I think several other markets on other days.

                                    One limiting factor may be how far a vendor is willing to travel, rather than market rules.

                                    1. re: Allstonian

                                      I would expect most maple syrup at local farmer's markets to be from MA (I buy syrup from Warren Farm in North Brookfield at the Waltham market), which is why I was so surprised to see what appeared to be jugs with "Vermont" printed on them. I didn't take a closer look, though, and when I went back today, the vendor wasn't there.

                                  2. re: FoodDabbler

                                    I go to some farmers markets upstate (NY) while visiting my daughter. Couple of observations:

                                    1. Wineries. NY lets wineries sell direct at markets. This is great. It also attracts a different crowd, not rowdy, more interested in wine & thus in cheese. Have bought some wonderful wine.
                                    2. The produce in NY was generally better this year than around Boston. Peaches were extraordinary. Corn was ridiculously good, much sweeter and less starchy, though the best this summer came from Quebec. Don't know why, but maybe different seed sources.
                                    3. There is no public market infrastructure here. People have mentioned big name markets around the world, but really good public markets exist in places like Rochester. Heck, Detroit has a much better public market than the little bit that Boston can muster at Haymarket. Without the public market infrastructure, you don't have the specialty purveyors spending time in the market, influencing the other participants, creating opportunity for others, showing the smaller markets how, etc.

                                    Blackstone St, Boston, MA

                                    1. re: lergnom

                                      > NY lets wineries sell direct at markets

                                      MA just recently passed a law that will allow MA winery sales at farmer's markets.


                              3. I frequent the farmer's market on Natick common, which is on Saturday mornings, I believe 9-1. They seem to have some of the items mentioned by the OP, and I always see the Hmong farmer, and someone, I believe from Foxborough, with cheese. Keown Orchards and Tangerini's farm always seem to be there with a good variety and good quality. Parking isn't too bad usually. It's not that far from the city; right at the junction of 135 and 27, not far from Rt. 9

                                1. Love my Quincy farmer's market on Fridays. I get so much there that I rarely need to hit the grocery store/TJs. Everything from fruit and veg, eggs, honey, lobsters, baked goods, wild mushrooms, felafel and other Middle Eastern treats (although I stay true to Felafel King down the street or wonderful Fordeees when I'm in that neck of the woods), the occasional jams or preserves, great bread, all sorts of good stuff.

                                  If it were bigger--like the above mentioned public markets-- sure I would love it, but I would buy waaaay too much stuff. I over-buy as it is and struggle (happily) to finish what I have in- house before going again each Friday. I don't think that sucks :)

                                  1. Non-local products are certainly allowed in our farmers' markets. I bought some honey from a VT apiary at the JP market recently.


                                    1. Personally, I love my little local (Belmont) farmers market. I am much more likely to show up to a market that is less than 5 minutes from my house for a few stalls than go to a central market with lots of stuff that is not as convenient. When I lived in Philadelphia, I would walk to the italian market on a weekly basis for a more comprehensive style market, but honestly prefer the smaller, less crowded format. It was fun looking at the skinned rabbits and half lambs in the window, but if I actually want something like that, I can always drive to a specialty retailer. Put my vote in for convenience over variety.