STONINGTON — Do you need a homemade dog biscuit in the middle of winter? How about some fresh spinach or kale just to have something green to look at? Or some fresh micro-grown sunflower shoots?
It’s all inside the Velvet Mill in the borough at the Indoor Farmers Market, and it’s open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. all winter. The market is run by the Stonington Village Improvement Association, which also organizes the summer farmers market at the Town Dock.
You can find all kinds of cheese there, plus fresh-baked bread, pies, scones and muffins (including some gluten-free), fresh vegetables, organic meat, eggs, jams, handmade soaps and sometimes even pottery and jewelry.
The market was busy around noon on a recent Saturday. There was only one parking space left in the Velvet Mill parking lot, and the smell of Zest Bakery wafted through the air. Inside, the huge open space was bustling with customers visiting a wide array of vendors or sitting in an area set up with tables and chairs, a fiddle and violin providing the soundtrack. Some of the shoppers browsed while walking dogs on leashes.
Mark Palithorpe, a 20-year farmer from Falls Creek Farm in Sterling, is known at the market by the sobriquet “Market Master.” He tells the vendors where to set up when they arrive, and he sells his kale, scallions, collard greens, bok choy and mustard greens here every winter, he said. In fact, he usually sells out of his inventory by 10:30 a.m.
But it’s not all roses for the Market Master.
“Farmers markets are great for the customers but harder on each individual farmer,” he said. “It can be very hard to make a living doing this. Where Starbucks charges $5 for a cup of coffee, I sell a large bag of kale for only $4.”
Keeping local farm-fresh options, he said, was a question of priorities.
“We need to think about our values in our society now. Do we want to keep farmers in business? If so, we have to support them. Do we value nutritious food or expensive coffee?”
The farmers at the market each pay $25 to reserve a spot each Saturday, and the diversity of the sellers is striking.
Justin Emmert rents space from the Davis Farm in Pawcatuck and grows micro-greens aquaponically. He said he sells out of the pea shoots first, but he also sells sunflower shoots, basil shoots and radish shoots, which people use to put on salads and sandwiches.
“I’m going to start selling wheatgrass as well to Fiddleheads Co-op in New London. I’m active-duty in the military right now, doing this in my free time. I’m hoping the business will grow so I can do this full-time.”
Emmert has big lans for the future.
“I will have a greenhouse year-round to have tomatoes, squash and green peppers. These are always going to be fresher than the grocery store,” Emmert said. “We pick fruit when it’s ripe, not when it’s ready to be shipped cross-country. There’s a huge difference in flavor and nutrition.”
Another farmer, Philip Griffin of Apis Verde Farm in Lebanon, Conn., runs his stand with his brother. They are in Stonington at the farmers market every Saturday, year-round.
“I run out of my spinach, leeks and cabbage usually in the first 45 minutes,” he said. “I sell onions, shallots, garlic, potatoes and celery root all year round. I’m a new farmer. I’ve been doing this for 5 years.”
Griffin said he started slowly in the business.
“I started with bee-keeping and I just liked it. I loved being outside and using my hands and staying in shape all year,” he said. “I eat well and I’m busy all the time. You gotta love it. I don’t make a ton of money.”
Melissa Matylewicz, of Dutchess Pet Treats, is another vendor who is there every Saturday. You can only buy her homemade treats here. She no longer has a store.
“All this started when my service dog, Duchess, was allergic to everything. That’s when I started baking my all-organic dog treats. I use all my own recipes,”, she said.
Some of the names of Matylewicz’s biscuits are Great Dane-ish, Punkin Pugs, Chicken Liver Lollies, Peanut Butter Pointers and Peanut Butter Veggie Shorthairs. They’re all $1 per treat.
“I haven’t raised my prices since 1999. We do this for the dogs,” she said.