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photo:B.A. Nilsson

Direct to Market
By B. A. Nilsson

Never mind the grocery stores; when you want fresh produce, you want farm-fresh produce

 

With morning twilight comes a thunderous chorus of sparrows greeting the daylight; by the time the sun crests the horizon and the time approaches 5:30, Tim Lane already is in his muggy, misty greenhouses harvesting lettuce. His 60 acres sprawl atop a ridge near the western end of Glen, a Montgomery County town that once thrived as an agricultural center but has seen a drastic drop in farming. What remain are a few large dairy operations, a recent influx of the Amish, and independent entrepreneurs like Lane.

He has only a few hours before it will be time to leave for the Empire Plaza Farmers’ Market in Albany. The market takes place from 10 to 2 every Wednesday and Friday from May through October, but vendors are invited only to one or the other. Lane attends the Wednesday sessions, and this particular Wednesday he’s afraid he’ll be caught short of lettuce.

“That’s why I’m only doing one market a week right now,” he explains as he walks by the large pink rafts of lettuce floating in hydroponic baths. “And lately it’s been so hot that I haven’t even been able to get enough for that one market and my regular customers.”

The greens change as the season progresses. Right now he’s growing a mix of oak leaf lettuce including the endive-like Tango and the sweeter Red Salad Bowl. There’s also deep-reddish Oscarde, a green version called Galisse and a romaine-bibb cross called Concept.

Completing the blend is a pair of summer crisp varieties: Magenta and Loma, the latter sporting a brilliant green leaf with jagged edges.

He tears off a leaf to inspect it. “We’ve had a terrible aphid problem lately,” he explains. “Look. You can see them.” A couple of brownish bumps, no bigger than the commas bracketing this phrase, dot the leaf. “I’m not allowed to wash the lettuce. If I did that, I’d be considered a food processor and I’d need a special license for it. So I have to tell my customers to make sure that they wash the leaves.”

The issue of regulations, while no doubt grounded in some onetime very real needs, is something that dogs the market purveyors. Later I’ll meet a vendor who keeps both bees and hens, but is allowed to sell only honey, not eggs. “The law says I can’t sell anything here that would have to be refrigerated,” he tells me, but (because I’m a fellow henkeeper) we both know that fresh eggs easily can endure a room-temperate afternoon.

Looking at younger lettuce plugs, Lane points out a good sign: ladybug larvae. “Ladybugs are natural predators of aphids. I try to keep my vegetables as organic as possible, so I’m not spraying any chemicals on the lettuce.”

Cucumbers are posing a tougher challenge. Last year, he lost most of his crop to the insidious cucumber beetle, a tiny yellow-and-black-striped critter cute enough to have come out of a cartoon. Right now the garden patch—cukes are grown in the open air with a drip-tape irrigation—sports a small yellow cup beside each plant. “The cups have oil in them,” Lane tells me. “They’re supposed to fool the bugs into thinking they’re cucumber blossoms, so the bugs crawl into the cups and the oil keeps them from getting out while they drown.” Indeed, each cup has several such trophies floating within. “But during a recent windstorm the oil got blown all over the leaves of the plants, and you can see where it burned them once the sun came out. These plants I’m probably going to have to spray.”

Each crop, which includes tomatoes, peppers and lots and lots of herbs, is a unique battlefield, with both natural predators and the crop’s own diseases arrayed against it. But embracing the world of pesticides makes no sense to Lane. “We’re growing this so that we can eat healthy things,” he says. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Lane’s first farmwork was hay baling at the age of 13. “I graduated from college in 1981, and for my first year of professional farming I lost $300 on 12 acres of buckwheat. In ’82, I planted my first crop of vegetables, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I must be insane.”

As the rising sun burns off the morning mists, the greenhouse temperature climbs. Lane is joined by his wife and teenage daughter; his father and a couple of friends soon add their hands to the harvest.

The greenhouse aisle is flanked by long plastic tubs in which float flat squares of Styrofoam, each about 6 feet by 6 feet. The squares are perforated with 2-inch holes in which sit plastic cylindrical baskets with netted sides and bottoms.

Lettuce seeds are started in these baskets in an adjoining greenhouse, then moved to the tubs as the roots develop. He seeds six flats each week, and harvest occurs about six weeks after planting. This system allows him to produce lettuce every month of the year.

Soon the workers settle into a system as the greens are cut, weighed and bagged. A coffee pot works almost as hard as they do to keep with demand; conversation is steady, erupting into sporadic laughter.

Each bag contains a half-pound of mixed lettuce and will sell for $3, or two for $5. Although Tim’s springtime production was running at about 280 bags a week, the combination of heat (which drove the plants to molt) and aphids has diminished his output. “I keep trying to fine-tune it,” he explains. “This is my fourth year of raising lettuce in baths like this, but I’ve been experimenting with hydroponics for a long time.” The net pots, for instance, are new this year, as are the many airstones that percolate the baths with oxygen.

By 9, we’re loading Lane’s red van with white plastic tubs of the bagged greens. He and his father built a special insert for the van, a box lined with Styrofoam and cooled with bagged ice. Around the box room to tuck an awning that fits against the back of the van as well as the folding table from which Lane sells his product.

There’s an access road near the Legislative Office Building that allows the vendors to back their vehicles to the north end of the plaza. It’s a hot but windy day, too windy for the awning, too windy for the tents that others have brought. As Lane is getting ready, the chef-owner of the 21 Elk Street Café stops by for a few bags of lettuce. “Are you going to have spinach again soon?” he asks. “My customers loved that spinach.” Tim promises a fresh supply in a couple of weeks.

Many of Lane’s customers are regulars, glad to see him. “The heat has made the lettuce lose a little color,” he explains again and again. “Anything you don’t like, I’ll take it back.” It’s clear that nobody is about to return any of the precious stuff.

The dozen vendors include some like Larry Ovsanikow, who offers a varied spread of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Flats of strawberries and nice heads of broccoli nestle near tomato plants. Ovsanikow is a third-generation farmer who has been working this market for all 25 years of its existence. “I try to make a living at it,” he declares gruffly.

Then there are the niche vendors, like Chaz Mantel of Greenfield Center, who has a line of gourmet salad dressings as well as honey from his own apiary, and Hillsdale-based Lisa Gintly, selling homemade cookies in her first year at the market, much of her sales success the direct result of the toothsome samples she provides.

Throughout the market hours, a stream of ID-necklaced state workers passes, pausing at the various tables to pick up something to go into a fresher-than-usual dinner. Many of them greet Lane by name, and he knows as they approach how much of his lettuce or herbs will be requested.

They know that buying from a local farmer is more than simply supporting the local economy. When you bite into a crisp, new leaf, and taste the astonishing blend of bitter and sweet, the wide-awake flavor that grabs every part of the palate, you know there’s no going back to store-bought. However much the supermarkets tout their produce, the fact is—unless they’re buying locally—it spent days, maybe weeks on its journey from farm to market.

Not here. What you munch on at 6 o’clock at night was parted from its roots at 6 in the morning. “I tell my customers that it’s best to grow their own vegetables in their own gardens,” says Tim. “Second best is to buy them from me.”

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The Cappiello Festa Italiana takes place this weekend (Friday-Sunday, June 24-26) in Schenectady’s Central Park. It’s an annual celebration of Italian culture with food, children’s activities, bocce, cooking and wine demonstrations, casino games, children’s rides, strolling mandolinist and vocal musicians, several bands and dance groups. Featured entertainment is by the Tuscan Duo at 8 PM Saturday and tenor Michael Amante at 7 PM Sunday. Admission is free. For more info, check out www.festa-italiana.com, or call 372-5656. . . . The Van Dyck Restaurant (237 Union Street, Schenectady) begins brewing beer again this week. The facility was part of the Van Dyck’s extensive refurbishment eight years ago and welcomes back brewmaster Jason Furman, who was part of the original crew. He’s promising to start off with an amber ale, an India Pale Ale, a traditional German wheat beer and a raspberry wheat beer; the second week of brewing will produce the Van Dyck’s “Coal Porter,” a classic pilsner, the popular “Edison Electric Light” and a traditional English bitter. Furman will be brewing in the evenings, when customers can watch him at work. For more information, call the restaurant at 381-1111. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banils son.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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* E-mail address not required to submit your feedback, but required to be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.

What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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