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Home-grown food for thought

Interest in Greenway public market high

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / March 4, 2011

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To Jim Buckle, the proposed public food market in downtown Boston is nothing short of a panacea: It would help his farm reach more customers, increase the availability of healthy foods, and raise the profile of Massachusetts agricultural products.

So when the vegetable farmer heard about a meeting to discuss opening one last week, he figured it would generate a fair amount of curiosity. What he didn’t count on was how much.

“It was packed,’’ said Buckle, whose family operates Allandale Farm in Brookline. “It blew me away how many people were interested.’’

By the state’s count, more than 100 vendors like Buckle attended the meeting and are now clamoring to sell their products in a facility along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, where city and state leaders want to open a 27,000-square-foot daily market to showcase the region’s home-grown foods.

A list of vendors who RSVP’d for last week’s meeting includes dairy farmers, fishmongers, berry growers, coffee sellers, bakers, honey producers, and winemakers from Lincoln, Truro, Westport, and elsewhere.

“There are so many benefits to opening a venue like this,’’ said Bill Russell, whose family owns and operates Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery. “I can’t tell you how many people I meet who have no idea about the wines being made on farms in Massachusetts.’’

The development of the market is still in its early stages, with state officials just beginning to craft a business plan and solicit public input on how the facility should be designed and managed. But several other factors are helping to push the timeline. Governor Deval Patrick’s administration has committed up to $10 million in funding and already has selected the location — a vacant state office building above the Haymarket MBTA Station. And Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and several other key officials are solidly behind the project.

Scott, Soares, the state’s agriculture commissioner, said he wants to open the market in 2012.

“We hope it will provide year-round access to more of the Massachusetts agricultural products people may not be aware of,’’ he said, adding that many farms are growing and selling crops through the winter, offering tomatoes, squash, a variety of root vegetables, and other products.

To hone its plans for the market, the state is getting help from the Project for Public Spaces, a New York nonprofit planning firm that is hosting meetings to gauge demand and help determine the right mix of vendors. The next meeting has not yet been scheduled.

In addition to the interest from farmers, several specialty food producers are also hoping to open stalls in the market, including Eduardo Kreindel of Giovanna Gelato Inc. in Newton. Like many food merchants, he lacks a venue to sell products directly to consumers, meaning he must rely on sales to restaurants, hotels, and other retailers.

“This would allow us to have our own retail operation without a large up-front investment,’’ said Kreindel, whose company makes more than 50 varieties of gelato and sorbet. “We are a small manufacturer of an artisan product, so it’s very important to have direct contact with the public.’’

Russell, of Westport Rivers, said direct customer contact is the only thing that can keep his company alive. Despite strong crops in recent years, he said sales are off 30 percent, due to strong competition from out-of-state wine sellers and the lack of a high-traffic venue to sell his product.

“It’s proven very challenging to attract consumers from far away,’’ Russell said. “Most people might come down here once a year.’’

Michael Docter, who operates Winter Moon Farm in Hadley, said the market will also help stir more conversation about the benefits of buying local.

He sells root vegetables such as carrots, beets, and radishes from December through March — a part of the year when many people are buying their produce in supermarkets that have it shipped from Mexico or other area.

“This will allow us to get our food into the city,’’ Docter said. “We have other venues where we can sell, but nothing as exciting as downtown Boston. This market will be a great meeting place for farmers and consumers to support Massachusetts agriculture, and do it in a very substantial way.’’

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.

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