Cromwell Farmers Market family-friendly vibe encourages return visits
CROMWELL — Christine Whitney of the certified organic and non-GMO Phoenix Farm here believes farming is much like dancing.
“Wonky” weather over the last few years has caused some of her more delicate crops to die, and bees, very sensitive to climate change, to succumb to temperature fluctuations over the winter.
“The music doesn’t stop. The time doesn’t stop, so when you have a crop that’s in, and, all of a sudden, it bolts on you and it fails, you just have to move on to the next thing,” she said.
Farmers and gardeners in the Northeast have been forced to try to grow plants such as spinach earlier in the season or forego them altogether, said Whitney, who purchased the former Lassen Farm from her mother in 2009 and runs it with her husband, John.
“You don’t always have time to replant that crop or the temperature might not be right for it to grow again until the fall or next spring,” she added.
“This is crazy. This is August [weather] — this isn’t the last weekend in May. It’s either 90 degrees or it’s 65 and raining,” Whitney said.
She is just one of the 35 vendors expected when the Cromwell Farmers Market at 1 River Road, which launched in 2015, opens from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday.
Over the course of the season, produce such as apples, peaches, pears, plums, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, asparagus, green and yellow beans, beets, broccoli, cauliflower,and farm-made items such as pesto, salsa, jams, pickles, pies, cookies and breads, will be sold, according to market master Heather Polke, who operates the weekly event with her husband, Jeff.
The farm-to-consumer marketplace runs through Sept. 28.
“We’ve tripled in size and it just keeps getting better and better. It was baby steps. The town has been awesome. It keeps growing,” Polke said.
“It’s become a community event, where older generations are coming out, people are bringing their kids. They’re making a night when they can come and have dinner, get their groceries for the week, listen to music, so it’s a fun night,” she added.
The state is saturated with such markets, so Polke set out to research others throughout Connecticut, gathering information that allowed her to craft a unique weekly marketplace that inspires people to visit different locations every week.
Polke, a mother of three who grows an herb garden, said it’s very important for her to cook for her family with locally grown and organic ingredients as often as possible.
The market also hosts a pet day “where everything is catered to animals,” and kids entrepreneur day, where children set up tents and sell their own wares, created or grown.
“We are creating the first Bee Happy kids community garden in town,” which will break ground next week on Evergreen Road, adjacent to the community garden already there.
The children will donate their fresh vegetables to the food bank and the money they earn from their stands will help fund next year’s garden.
“Teaching kids the start-to-finish process doesn’t go that well, but it’s teaching them how to grow their own food and give back,” Polke said.
These junior farmers, very eager to start to garden, she added, will have their own keys to access their plots at the space, which will be fenced in. Already, the project has raised $14,000 in funding, much of which will go to purchasing fencing, 25 raised beds sponsored by families in memory of a loved one and other reasons, stones, a shed and pergola.
“It’s definitely not going to be your run-of-the-mill, put some dirt down and plant” effort, Polke said.
Phoenix Farm will be selling cold-weather crops such as lettuces, kales, collards, sweet peas and snap peas. Summer crops will include summer squash, hot, sweet and frying peppers; 36 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 15 varieties of cherry tomatoes and eggplant.
The Durham-based Gmonkey food truck will be stationed there weekly, selling vegetarian, eco-friendly selections.
Singer/guitarist Steven McGrath of Middletown will perform Friday as well. His repertoire moves from classic rock to pop to soul and R&B and beyond, according to his website.
The Whitneys sell certified organic raw wildflower honey from her husband’s apiary, which many consume for health reasons, she said.
“People believe that it works for their allergies because they’re ingesting the same blooms that blossom — the nectar — that the bees are. We can’t keep it in stock,” she said.
The couple lost all their hives this past winter.
Other beekeepers Whitney talked to throughout the region are experiencing similar issues. Fellow farmers on Long Island lost 40 hives, and another in Lebanon saw more than 15 percent of her hundreds of hives die, Whitney said.
“Climate change affects them. It needs to get cold and stay cold all winter long to support the bee population,” she added. “Bees go outside every single day. They void, then come back into the hive. They’re constantly in flux.
“They go into a tight little nesting ball that keeps them warm. It kind of undulates — the inside bees go to the outside and the inside come to the outside, so they fly out and in after they’ve done their business, and they all stay warm,” Whitney said.
When area temperatures sometimes reach 50 or 60 degrees in January and December, the bees can be hurt of killed.
“The bees start to loosen up that tight ball because they feel the warmth inside the hive. It gets very hot — then you get a 30- or 40-degree temperature drop at night, and it goes down into the teens or below zero,” Whitney said. “They don’t have the ability to tighten up that ball again.”
“And then they freeze to death,” she said.
Bees don’t produce honey during the winter because it’s the food the insects thrive on. “They’re just trying to save warm and survive,” she added.
For information, visit the market on Facebook and the web at cromwellfarmersmarket.org, or call 860-614-8727.