East Liberty farmers market open year round

Did you know that you can go to a local farmers market in winter? And still buy lots of local food?

Earlier this month, I braved another snow squall to drive to the East Liberty Farmers Market, which is open from 5 a.m. to noon every Saturday in the yellow brick former stable and feedmill building where it started in 1941. While the market, which claims to be the city's oldest, has its regular customers, some of whom have been coming for decades, plenty of Western Pennsylvanians may not even know about it. It's on Sheridan Avenue, just across from the Home Depot, and easy to spot with the colorful produce, flowers and livestock painted on the front.

My wife and son and I walked in and were quickly charmed -- by the place and its people.

Now, this ain't Whole Foods. As one customer described it, it's more a "diamond in the rough."

Thanks to a fire in February 2007, the booths that line both sides of the long space are all unpainted wood and plywood. (Still, the market never closed, setting up shop for a while in a temporary building.)

We made our way to the new Kew Park Coffee Stand and ordered a coffee, a hot chocolate and a tangerine juice, and I chatted with David Lagnese, who started running it with his two children this past fall, having discovered the estate and its coffee on vacations to Jamaica. He's now Kew Park's only coffee stand, which is pretty cool.

Mr. Lagnese, whose day job is a principal in the Pittsburgh branch of benefits consultant Towers Perrin and who also organizes Construction Junction's Big Pour beer festival, is becoming a publicist for the old market. One of his e-mails put the place on my radar. He's now working on a Web site.

"Yes, we are trying to better 'market' the market," he noted in an e-mail last week that announced that the market joined PASA (the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) and the Buy Fresh Buy Local program. "Everyone associated with the market is really excited about being part of a larger effort to promote sustainable agriculture. We have been doing that at the market for nearly 70 years -- long before the concept of sustainability became fashionable."

Its proper name is the Farmers Market Cooperative of East Liberty, and it's owned by four farm families who go back to when the market started five generations ago.

Or six, if you count the three children, selling handmade mini scarves, of John and Val Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy gets to the market at 3 a.m. to start stocking a big cooler with meat -- everything from beef and pork to rabbit and pheasant, raised without antibiotics in Butler, Armstrong and Westmoreland counties -- that they sell at their J.L. Kennedy meat stand. Customers line up early, too, and so, except for pre-orders, the meat is gone well before closing time.

The other owner farms are:

Greenawalt Farm near West Newton, Westmoreland County. Mom Ina Greenawalt is the farmer, known locally for her eggs, which her son, Bryan, and daughter, Melanie Brush, sell at the market, along with all kinds of produce, local and not, plus dairy products, meat, pasta, jams and jellies and more. Ms. Brush also sells a complete line of quilts and other crafts, and will even do alterations. Her mom puts out free clothes and other giveaway items.

Kistaco Farm in Apollo, Armstrong County. Tim Hileman, his family's third generation here, sells a variety of fruits and vegetables -- they also have a market at their farm. He'll have several varieties of their own apples and cider well into spring, and he also brings bread from Wood Street Bakery in Wilkinsburg to sell.

Zang's Greenhouse in Butler County. Rick Zang still has local potatoes and shallots, as well as non-local other produce (including pineapple and oranges), flowers and mushrooms. With every purchase, he gives you a healthy amount of his personality.

All the vendors do. They include Riverview Dairy in Emlenton, which brings its goat cheeses. Mike Smalls sells snacks and dips from the Greek Gourmet in Squirrel Hill. Right at the door, we met Garima Jain, who sells Indian snacks and jewelry. I already wished I were a regular customer, too.

"This is the kind of place that people say, they've heard of it, but they've never been there," says Lawrenceville's Rebecca Plum, who for about a month now has been selling bread, scones, her "tiny pies" and other baked goods.

You don't have to hang out long to see how "local" is a priority with many customers.

"Your own?" a woman asked Mr. Zang this past Saturday, picking up a parsnip.

He nodded no, and steered her to the last of his carrots.

She passed on the parsnips, but like them, I'm from Michigan, so I bought a bagful.

I chatted with Donna Chernoff, who comes over regularly from Squirrel Hill with her husband, John. Both had full bags of produce in their hands, and joked with Mr. Zang about having watched the dark documentary "Food Inc." the night before.

"We want to know where the food is coming from," she said. "We want to know how the beef is raised." At the market, she said, "there's a trust factor."

And it's not just the food and the farmers that draw them.

"It's the community that gathers here every Saturday," she said. "It's very rare nowadays to get a sense of community like you have here."

Another woman heartily seconded that, sparking a smile from Mrs. Chernoff, who said she doesn't know what she'd do without this market.

"I would describe it as a jewel in the city."

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930. First Published February 25, 2010 5:00 AM


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