Vying for a stall at the
Easton Farmers’ Market
Photography by Adam Atkinson
ON ITS PICTURESQUE SURFACE , THE EASTON FARMERS’ MARKET RADIATES A LAID-BACK, WELCOMING VIBE. But with more than 70 vendors on its roster and a waiting list at any given moment, the producer-only market provokes anxiety in the hearts of aspiring sellers. Thanks to the huge crowd it draws—as many as 4,000 on a Saturday in high summer—as well as the market’s serious cred among farmers, vendors, chefs and restaurateurs, nabbing a coveted table there can be the difference between success and failure for a fledgling food business. Market manager Megan McBride and assistant manager Brittany Vokoun carefully orchestrate the operation, maintaining a thoughtful mix of farms, bakeries, wineries, creameries, ready-to-eat food vendors, specialty producers, kids’ activities, live music, chef demos and festivals. Last year, in addition to its year-round Saturday market, EFM added Weyerbacher Wednesdays, an evening market sponsored by Weyerbacher’s Brewery with a looser vibe—and room for more new vendors, such as the three profiled here.
The spaces made available by the Wednesday market are something of a tryout for the even more competitive Saturday spaces. “It’s about giving people an opportunity to get in, with room to grow,” says Vokoun. Here are three relative newcomers you’ll be seeing on Wednesdays.
V-LISH VEGAN SOUP COMPANY
Meghan Baker, the 33-year-old owner of V-lish Vegan Soup Company in Bethlehem, describes herself as very old-fashioned, which isn’t a word one commonly associates with veganism. Yet it makes sense. Baker wants people to eat real meals together made from whole foods, ones that just happen to be vegan. “It’s very important to me that when people are finished eating my food they feel healthy and comforted,” she says.
As a mom of four kids under the age of 6, Baker is always cooking from scratch. A few years back, the lifelong vegetarian made the switch to a vegan diet. Her first move? She started whipping up healthy soups, since her kids will happily slurp down puréed veggies. Many vegan supermarket staples are highly processed, so she went back to basics for inspiration, flipping through old cookbooks whose recipes predate the proliferation of seitan and TVP (texturized vegetable protein).
Soon, she found herself doodling ideas for an imaginary sandwich shop. Family members encouraged her to launch V-lish in spring 2013. Within two months, Baker debuted at Weyerbacher Wednesdays with two kettles of soup—a raw chili and what became a wildly popular vegetable soup called Gushing Green.
A few weeks into Baker’s new business, McBride stopped by her tent and asked (“in the nicest way possible”) if she would make a salad, sensing the simultaneous increase of Baker’s popularity and the summer’s heat. So Baker added something she’d already been making at home: faux tuna salad, made with chickpeas, carrots, celery and a vegan mayonnaise. It’s now a customer favorite. V-lish moved inside when the market did in November, adding summer rolls, a tofu scramble with tempeh bacon, pot roast lentils, and a quinoa, spinach and chickpea stew.
Shortly after the start of the winter market, it was time to plan for 2014. Dauntless, Baker applied for both Wednesday and Saturday markets. She was accepted as one of 25 vendors for Wednesday, but denied the most coveted spot: Saturday. Market managers and the EFM advisory council expressed their concerns about this relatively green business.
“We weren’t sure she was prepared and equipped to handle the capacity of thousands of people every Saturday,” says Vokoun. Baker appealed, citing the changes she’d implemented, such as hiring additional employees and writing a business plan. Baker received conditional approval for Saturday on a trial basis for the first six weeks of the season.
In just one short year, V-lish has catapulted to twice-a-week status— an unusual, enviable position held by only a handful of other vendors, including mainstay Scholl Orchards. Her ascension is no accident; she is one of the most motivated and engaging vendors I’ve observed. She astutely digs in, knowing the market is fertile collabsorative turf. Baker suggested that fellow vendor Debbie Lane of the bakery Debbie’s Kitchen start offering vegan and gluten-free items, creating more choices for both of their customers. The move expanded both Lane’s base and Baker’s repertoire, as she’s now using Debbie’s Kitchen vegan bread in sandwiches.
This collaborative behavior is habitual, automatic. One week, Baker forgot the cabbage for her summer rolls. She walked across the aisle to Jett’s Produce, bought some of his Farmer Thad’s sauerkraut, called it fermented cabbage, and advertised with signage where it came from. Before the end of the day, both the rolls and his sauerkraut disappeared. This community-minded spirit typifies Easton; the market follows suit. “Everyone feeds off each other; that’s the beautiful thing about it,” Baker says.
Spurred by her successes at the market, Baker’s now exploring wholesaling to restaurants. Reflecting back, she says she assessed several farmers’ markets and Easton most impressed her. “It is the most organized of all of them. I appreciated the opportunity to test what works and what doesn’t. As a new business owner, it was exactly what I needed.”
Telford farmer Thaddeus Jett has been a staple at the Lansdale Farmers’ Market, where he’s on the board, since 2008. In fact, he’s never missed a market, even when he was recuperating from a stroke last year. But the naturally cautious Jett has also sold—or tried to sell—his chemical-free produce at a handful of farmers’ markets in Montgomery, Lehigh and Northampton counties and ended up unimpressed by what other markets had to offer his business.
That disappointment is one of the reasons he bristled when Megan McBride tried to recruit him a few years ago after she first tasted his candy-like Sun Gold tomatoes. At the time, it just didn’t seem convenient. “I didn’t want to drive that far,” he said, shaking his head. But other farmers kept nudging him to apply and eventually, last November, he reluctantly decided to give it a try.
It was a decision that paid off immediately. Where other markets sometimes flood the stalls with similar sellers, Easton’s managers consider the whole picture and how it affects individual vendors. As one of only two carefully chosen produce vendors, Jett’s table, laden with the requisite root veggies plus canned tomatoes, sauces, ketchup, apple butter and sauerkraut, was buzzing all winter long.
This calibrated approach eliminates animosity between farmers and makes for a friendly atmosphere.
“I’m used to vendors eyeing each other warily at markets. This has been an absolutely pleasant surprise,” he reports. He relates a story of a fellow vendor’s table falling over. Immediately, about a half-dozen people, vendors included, scurried to restore order. “I have never seen that before in any other market,” he says. Coming to the EFM for winter jump-started his understanding of the market. Jett ought to effortlessly build on the following he’s established—and prep for the swell of the summer season—in time for his Wednesday debut. But because he’s new, he’s not sure what to anticipate in sales.
Even with a limited harvest during a punishing winter, he was more successful than the height of the summer at Lansdale. All signs point to brisk sales for the summer season. Although Jett says if they’re taken care of properly, one plant can yield 400 pounds of fruit, it may still not be enough once people in Easton start getting a taste of his super-sweet tomatoes.
Jett is no stranger to farming. He grew up watching his dad grow corn and soybeans, and always had his hands in the dirt, selling some of his harvest at a self-serve stand. However, after working various manual labor and corporate jobs, this 57-year-old is a relative newcomer to full-time farming. That started in 2006, and for a short period he farmed both conventionally and chemical-free. The competitive price wars, however, among conventional farmers nearby were getting out of hand, so he stopped farming that way altogether, and hasn’t looked back.
As with many of his farming brethren, he’s not going for the organic certification. Since 2006, he’s been incorporating the principles espoused by a young Amish farmer named John Kempf: high-performance farming, an organic practice that maximizes the soil’s nutrient content.
Once he went chemical-free, his yields doubled and the produce looked more robust—more deeply colored, flavorful and nutritious, thanks to increased antioxidant activity. Growing a better product allows him to command a higher price, even if it meant he had to work a little harder—and in the case of Easton, travel a little further—to find those willing customers.
AND MIKE MANNING:
THE COLONY MEADERY
Situated in a long, low-slung building called the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in Allentown, The Colony Meadery is so unassuming you might almost completely miss it. A brand-spanking-new business, this purveyor of honey wine is positioned in a manufacturing incubator where the overhead is cheap and there’s room to grow. They’ll need it. This spring, by the time the company turned four months old, Colony occupied every last inch of its roughly 900-square-foot space, with its mead finding homes on an increasing number of dedicated taps at local bars. It’s easy to remain low-key in a warehouse setting, but setting up camp at a busy weekly farmers’ market is another story entirely. “People keep telling us, you don’t understand how fast this is going to change, how quickly this is going to happen,’” says CEO Greg Heller-LaBelle, 31.
Although mead is an ancient fermented beverage, situated somewhere between wine and beer, it’s not a widely consumed one. Heller- LaBelle, a beer writer with an M.B.A. and a mind that collects data with ease, says there are fewer than 100 mead makers in the country. We’ve got four of them in the Commonwealth, a paltry sum considering how gonzo we are for locally brewed beverages. Appearing at EFM should accelerate the buzz.
Heller-LaBelle currently lives in Hellertown but has spent time in both Pittsburgh and Bethlehem. He met his business partner, Mike Manning, at a beer club in Pittsburgh. Manning brought some mead he’d made. “I thought, ‘Why doesn’t everyone drink this?’ It was different, nuanced and complex.”
Sounds kind of like craft beer, right? Mead’s following the path blazed by beer; the two drinks even share some ingredients. Colony’s Woofiedog mead is dry-hopped with Cascade and other pale-ale hops. Mead’s creators undeniably share the same penchant for experimentation as craft brewers and at a bar, it pours from a tap, like beer.
But in Pennsylvania, if you want to buy a bottle, you’ll need to head to the source, find them at farmers’ markets or hit up a state store, as mead is legislated like wine.
“We consider ourselves a craft beverage even though we are technically a winery,” Heller-LaBelle says. Invoking Dogfish Head for its no-holds-barred ingenuity, he says, “We aim for a boldness of flavor and an innovation with flavor combinations that is rare in mead.” Now, to the sticky part: sourcing. There are plenty of local apiaries around, and many restaurants and organizations have added beekeeping to their DIY initiatives. However, apiaries simply can’t offer enough honey; a single hive, in a good year, yields about 90 pounds, enough for just one batch.
After early trials with local wildflower honey, which Manning says yielded a medicinal, eucalyptus taste, Colony settled on the bright, consistent taste of orange blossom for its flagship meads including Straight, No Chaser. There’s just one catch: we don’t exactly have orange groves around here. What’s a homegrown meadery to do? Manning already knew Lee and Krista Sandt of Sandt’s Honey in Easton, a local company with a long history of beekeeping but which now packages and distributes its unfiltered honey. The orange blossom variety that Colony prefers comes via Sandt’s, from apiaries in New Jersey with migratory hives that pollinate orange groves in Florida. Vokoun admits they had some concerns about Colony joining the market’s roster—mead is a first for many. The honey situation was tricky, because EFM is a producer-only market that aims for its products to be as locally and sustainably sourced as possible. “They had to prove that the honey wasn’t coming from China,” Vokoun says of Sandt’s.
Farmers’ markets were definitely part of Colony’s strategy from inception; they sought out EFM. But Heller-LaBelle says the market has to be the right fit. “So many of them are more market than farmer,” he says. Enter Easton. “The Wednesday market is centered around good beverages,” he says, referring to Weyerbacher. “We wanted people who would not shy away from trying mead,” he says. EFM is surrounded by a population of over 75,000 people, including its adjacent suburbs, and several hundred farms within a 100-mile radius that sell directly to consumers. The market succeeds because people are united by a common cause: making local sustainable food accessible, affordable and abundant as a means to strengthen the community and grow the economy.
“I am a firm believer that if we all work together, that we will rise twice as high—everyone is pulling for the same thing,” says Thaddeus Jett. n The Easton Farmers’ Market is open Saturday, 9am-1pm, through November 22, and Wednesday, 4-8pm, through September. Centre Square, Easton.