Managing the Trenton Farmers Market with Chris Cirkus, November 30, 2020

Pineland Farms flower, fruit, and vegetable stand at the “center” of the Trenton Farmers Market building. Pineland offers a CSA arrangement each year, with weekly boxes of what’s fresh on the farm.

As we continue to meet remotely thanks to COVID19, it was indeed good to gather again to catch up and to learn. Looking forward to returning to in-person meetings with more tasty lunches, sometime in 2021.

We began our meeting with business, approving the minutes from the October gathering and hearing that there would be no December meeting.  Joe Teti had hoped we could gather at Blooming Grove for a holiday luncheon, keeping distances as appropriate, but that turned out not to be workable. 

The Treasurer did not attend this meeting, so there was no treasurer’s report, but we were reminded to pay our 2021 dues of $35/person, and that we would meet again on Monday, January 25, still via Zoom.

Shan Holt, as Program Committee Chair, introduced our speaker, Chris Cirkus, and thanked her for sandwiching our meeting in at a very busy season.  Chris manages the Trenton Farmers Market (TFM) and the Windsor Farmers Market (WFM) as well, so the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas can be pretty wild.

Chris explained that when she began at Windsor Farmers Market she was not experienced with market management but with connecting folks in community.  She came to TFM with years of experience in Windsor to draw on.  Her first major move was to address the deteriorated infrastructure of the Trenton market.  After a deep cleaning, including the walls, ceilings, all the pipes, and the floors, she arranged to have all the striping repainted marking stalls and parking areas, then began the business of helping the market to thrive.

She’s very passionate about the history of the TFM and hopes to use an area in the market as a museum of the Market’s history.  She shared a number of historic photographs with the group that certainly would create a proud and memorable display.

The Market began around 1900 near the Trenton Makes Bridge but the area turned out to be too narrow to service all the farmers and wagons coming in.  By 1918, the Market had moved to S. Broad and 3rd street, just southeast of today’s Hamilton Light Rail station. 

The TFM is a cooperative, owned by the farmers who exhibit goods there.  Slowly the group shifted from selling to wholesalers to selling direct to customers, as the market location continued to shift around Broad St, to the Roebling Park, to Chestnut and Grand.  When Rt 29 was pushed through Trenton, the Market made its final move away from downtown; by 1948 TFM had settled in its current location on Spruce Street.  All these moves and the deliberations leading to them are documented in the Market’s archive, which should be preserved and could support museum interpretation.

Physical changes were not over for the Market, though, even after it settled in place.  The Spruce St site included numerous buildings, including a working abattoir where Halo Farms now does business.  (Chris doesn’t regret the loss of that function on the property!) As the number of farmers in the area declined, the remaining members of the cooperative decided to cut one of the Market’s long buildings in half and create today’s single (and distinctive) cross-shaped market building.  As one who has arranged to meet others “at the center” of the market, I’m glad they did.

Besides the cross-shape, TFM has always been known for its iconic red sign.  Chris has been working to restore the sign and perhaps remount it above the Market.  She has also developed a logo and some merchandise that features the historic sign.

Today, the Market has 6 or 7 members, a few descended from the original farmers who formed the cooperative, others of whom have joined along the way.  Chris recruits vendors actively, working to create a mix of raw and prepared food, some grocery outlets, and opportunities to feature local artisans and craftspeople.  There is fresh meat and seafood for sale, alongside vegetables, plants, coffee and tea, homemade baked goods, with restaurants featuring Haitian, vegan/gluten-free, barbecue, and Pennsylvania Dutch cuisines.  Two new farms are finishing their probationary year and will be eligible to join the cooperative soon.  Last year, Chris also added an antiques stall, a small bulk-goods retailer, and some personal care products.

Chris wants to see more young farmers in the group to keep the Market going as the original members age out of farming.  Many local farms have shut down in the last half century, with younger generations choosing not to continue to farm.  This is especially a problem in areas where property values encourage farms to sell out to developers. 

The TFM gets some financial help to sustain operations from the USDA.  They host Jersey Fresh tasting days, too.  Chris is working to get more farmers to accept SNAP funds, to address the need for fresh produce among Trenton’s poorer residents.  She’s reaching out to Polish and Hispanic vendors to broaden the variety available and attract new groups of customers.  She has developed marketing pushes with signs along Route 1 going through the city, working with Trenton’s own Zienowicz signs.

Fresh mackeral and bronzini on offer at the Trenton Farmers Market

One of the challenges of managing the market is that there are so many “owners” with competing desires, all expecting to get their own way.  It’s the nature of a “cooperative,” I guess, for people not to cooperate.  But she’s determined to create an atmosphere that rewards shoppers, helps them get many of their shopping needs met in one place, and keeps the Market healthy for the city.

Symposium members expressed a great devotion to the TFM, while asking their questions after the presentation.  A question about Community Supported Agriculture brought the affirmation that Pineland Farms at the TFM does offer such a relationship.  We were also reminded of the small fish market out the double doors past the BBQ place. 

Chris was invited to compare the Windsor and Trenton markets.  Windsor, she indicated more actively participated in the USDA’s initiative to connect markets to schools, and to learn better market management techniques.  TFM vendors stayed aloof, feeling that they had a community they could count on.  Chris commented that the bylaws of the TFM cooperative can be both a strength and a weakness.  Other markets are making themselves into destinations, offering holiday meals, and restaurants that create reasons to visit the market.  TFM’s bylaws require agreement among many members before significant change can be implemented, so that can slow down adaptations to modern consumer preferences and modern marketing ideas.  The bylaws also give vendors control over their days and hours of opening.  The inability to guarantee the availability of the Market’s diverse goods at any one time does hamper efforts to recruit new customers.  

In response to questions about her future plans for the market, Chris indicated that she did a customer survey when she first arrived in 2018 and has been working to implement the desires expressed there.  One was to have a fresh mushroom vendor, which was added.  (I can say from experience that the ‘shrooms are marvelous!)  She also succeeded in adding a coffee and tea shop, where one can buy both prepared or in bulk.  She hopes to keep adding sparkle as well as staple goods to the Market’s offerings and more prepared foods that appeal to younger customers.

Wine tasting at the Terhune Orchards stall. Terhune makes and markets its own wines on Cold Soil Road near Princeton. They also make and sell sublime apple cider donuts, sometimes offering one free if you bring your own shopping bag!

So between recalling and exhibiting the Market’s history and exploring and developing its future, Chris certainly keeps busy all year round.

With thanks to Chris for her terrific presentation and great work, the meeting adjourned at 1pm. 

We will meet again on January 25, to hear from Nicole Smith, head of the NJ Chapter of the international girls literacy non-profit, Room to Read.

Respectfully submitted,

Shan Holt, Secretary