West Windsor Community Farmer's Market
On Saturday mornings in the summer, any passerby near Princeton Junction station might hear some music and see people coming in and out of Vaughn Drive Lot. Coming closer, one can smell a variety of produce, ranging from fruits and vegetables to freshly baked pasta to curries and chutney. If one keeps following their nose, and their ears from the live music, they will soon reach the West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market (WWCFM): a long-term West Windsor tradition that celebrates good food and community while supporting local farmers.
The WWCFM was founded in 2004 by two community residents with the mission to support New Jersey agriculture and farmers. The market was founded with eight farms and one baker, and has since grown to become a comprehensive grocery shop, if not more. “We have everything from eggs, meats, cheeses, to fresh locally sustainable caught seafood, to fruits and vegetables,” WWCFM Manager Chris Cirkus said.
Along with foods and produce, the Market also hosts live music from local groups. “We have an engagement with community groups and musicians so that there’s a festive feel when you show up at the market. One of our board members, Gretchen Jaeckel, is a musician, and schedules the music. We’ve got a pretty consistent roster of musicians. Music is a very fun part of the market because it’s right in the middle, and we’ve got good seating. Kids will stand in front of the musicians and dance and twirl, which is a joy to see,” Cirkus said.
Cirkus also mentioned the “great relationships with other local community groups who come to the market, such as the West Windsor Bicycle & Pedestrian Alliance, the Princeton Hospital, and the West Windsor Fire Department. Community engagement is such a huge part of what the Farmers’ Market brings to West Windsor.”
Cirkus, a West Windsor resident for the past 18 years and recent member of the Affordable Housing committee, joined the WWCFM board as manager around eight years ago, as the opportunity fit both her interests and her needs. “I have been a lover of good food my entire life. I grew up in a home with an amazing mom who cooked, and we even had a giant garden. When I started working at the Beth Chaim Preschool, I had created a cooking program for preschoolers. At that time, the Farmers’ Market was advertising for a new manager, and it fit my need for another part-time job.”
Since becoming manager, Cirkus developed a body of work regarding agriculture and produce throughout New Jersey. She has organized farmers’ markets conferences, has helped other markets start, and even works part-time with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. Through her various activities as part of organizing the Farmers’ Market, Cirkus volunteers throughout the community. Whether it be “cooking demonstrations at the Senior Center, judging cooking contests, attending health fairs, or Little League events,” she has learned about the importance of community in any event. For this reason, Cirkus maintains her focus on supporting and growing communities as part of WWCFM, those of farmers’ and of West Windsor overall.
Since Cirkus became manager, the WWCFM board also took charge of the Winter Markets at the Windsor Athletic Center. “When I came in, we were hosting these markets for a different group in Princeton, and we slowly expanded from three times a winter to four and five times. We later moved it to the Windsor Athletic Club, and expanded the market to twice a month from December through April. There’s a lot of product at these markets, and it’s a great opportunity to educate people on the seasonality of food,’ Cirkus said.
While Cirkus leads the team, she is far from alone in her work to run the Farmers’ Markets. The WWCFM board, made up of ten community members, splits up the various tasks involved in organizing the market. Cirkus also noted the importance of help from her family and volunteers, especially student volunteers. “I helped run a volunteer fair at HS North a few years ago, and found a crew of teenagers looking for community volunteering hours. Now, most of those kids have aged out, so we need new volunteers,” Cirkus said.
For volunteers, Cirkus noted the important skills learned from volunteering at the Farmers’ Market. “There are so many life skills that come from a space where you’re directly interacting with people every week, whether it be event planning, logistics, relationships,” she said. She added that she is open to having any volunteers aged 14 and up, and provides community service certificates at the end of the season.
Board member and West Windsor resident Craig Goodfriend further explained the educational value of this market for him and his family. “When we moved here, I remember having conversations with friends about a local Farmers’ Market. We didn’t have any children at the time but I remember my wife and I drove by to check it out, and we loved it,” he said.
“What it turned into was an experience with my wife and kids as well. My older son Ben, 10, goes to the Farmer’s Markets at 7:30 a.m. in the morning and helps set up with me, and volunteers his time at the information booth desk as well. He’s learned a lot about the farmers, and the market overall has turned into a really positive family experience,” Goodfriend added.
Cirkus herself noted what she has learned from organizing the Farmers’ Market. “Personally, realizing the importance of community is something that I’ve so enjoyed. Every single walk of life is visible at our market. I do cooking demonstrations at the senior center, and those seniors then come to the market. There are families that I know from when I taught at the pre-school who still come to see me. Furthermore, the Farmers’ Market is such a wonderful opportunity to meet people I’ve never met otherwise,” Cirkus said.
Though Cirkus has worked with a variety of markets, she believes there are certain qualities that make the WWCFM unique. “Certainly our connection to New Jersey farmers is unique, because its not the model that any other market follows. The community that we’ve created at the market is so positive, both behind and in front of the scenes. We all have relationships to the consumer and the community members, and we have great relationships with the vendors, and the farmers and vendors have great relationships. It’s a win-win-win of positivity!” Cirkus said.
Cirkus also noted the market’s payment structure, called MarketBucks, and described how they used their system to be socially responsible. Recently, the market has moved to using a token system, where attendees can swipe their card and receive a certain amount of tokens of equal value, which they can then use to pay vendors. Adding to this token system, the WWCFM got approved to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) two seasons ago. “Because of an amazing grant through the Garden State Good Food Network, we are able to match SNAP purchases up to $15 for additional fruits and vegetables,” Cirkus said. “We felt that it was our responsibility to make sure that the Farmers’ Market was accessible to everyone, regardless of if you were on food assistance or not,” she added.
Along with SNAP assistance, WWCFM also helps give back to those in other communities. “One thing about community groups that we're extremely proud of is our relationship with Arm in Arm, which runs food pantries in Princeton and Trenton. Their Yes, We CAN volunteers solicit cash donations from shoppers which is then spent directly from our farms. Last season, our shoppers' generosity brought in over 9000 pounds of fresh food for fellow community members,” Cirkus said.
Vendors at the Farmers’ Market agree with Cirkus’ assessment of how special the market truly is. Mike Rassweiler of NorthSlopeFarm, a vendor that sells produce such as herbs, fruits and vegetables, and eggs, has been a part of the WWCFM since it began, and believes the managing team and the location make the market a special place. “The founders, market managers and volunteers manifest an incredibly positive energy that helps lift the customers and the vendors to a higher plane. Also, the location is excellent. The actual layout of the parking lot is unique is that there’s a safe pedestrian area surrounded on both sides by trees, completely surrounding by easily accessible parking,” Rassweiler said.
“I definitely look forward to the (WWCFM), even after farming and marketing for over twenty years. It’s new every weekend, but also has a lot of familiar faces. It’s a great physical environment due to the people who are very excited about their produce and the pleasant demeanor of the market managers and volunteers,” he continued.
Mario Zeck of LoRe’ Pasta, a vendor that sells fresh pasta and sauces, adds his perspective on the importance of the Chris and the market both to his business and to the agricultural community as a whole. “Basically the market was the kickoff of our business. We contacted Chris Cirkus a few years ago and basically asked her if we could come into the market. She helped us focus on local food and supporting the farmers. She even helped us find a mill that has local grain, and really helped us create our business from the beginning. She was a huge help for us,” Zeck said.
Zeck also noted how the entire management team “really cares about the farmers and the community. It’s hard to explain, but the vibe in that place is so much fun. It’s my one day off, so I like working with my wife and kids, and we just have a great time,” he said.
“The main thing I take out of that market is the community coming together. These days people are on their phones a lot, in their own kind of zone, and I feel like people put their phones away, go to the market, enjoy, converse, and just talk about life and enjoy life. It’s pretty refreshing,” Zeck added.
“Even if we become big enough to not do markets, we’ll always be at West Windsor. That’ll be our spot, just because it helped build our business, so we’re always going to support it and be a part of it,” he concluded.
For the Farmers’ Market this year, Cirkus noted the addition new vendors but focused on sustaining the family environment they have established in the past 15 years. “Every year there’s a bit of ebb and flow, but the running joke is that it’s impossible to get into our market, but once you’re in, you’re family because we really protect our farms and vendors,” she said. Some new vendors for the season include Mishti Chocolates (a vegan chocolatier), Curries and Chutnies, and Morganics Family Farm.
Looking ahead, the WWCFM’s focus is not on the growth of the market itself, but of the surrounding community. “It’s about the growth of the farmers, and if we’re advocating anything it’s giving people a chance to eat fresh local good, and support the community. That’s really what we’re trying to accomplish. At our market, you can buy incredible and healthy local food that both helps the community and helps yourself from a health perspective,” Goodfriend said.
“To give a community space for folks to engage with each other and with farmers and vendors will always be the mission of the market. Positivity breeds positivity, and our market gives people the unique chance to pause and appreciate the town we live in. That’s a very unique thing to look forward to,” Cirkus concluded.
This year’s Farmers’ Market will open on Saturday, May 5th, and run through November 17th. Each market will be Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., rain or shine, at the Vaughn Drive Lot just off Alexander Road on the southbound side of the Princeton Junction Train Station. Pricing is determined by each farm and vendor. There is no admission cost to attend the market, and parking in the Vaughn Drive lot is free on Saturdays for the market. For more information, please visit www.westwindsorfarmersmarket.orgor call 609-933-4452.
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