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How about some radishes with that Big Mac?

With summer on way, Department of Transportation invites farmers’ markets to sell to passing motorists

By James O’Brien
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2010

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The persistent hiss of rubber on asphalt. The axle rattle of a steel flatbed on a truck-pulled tow hook, taking a curve. Two passersby making a beeline for the bathroom. And a man selling honey from a stand.

That was the scene at the westbound service plaza on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Charlton yesterday, as the state Department of Transportation kicked off its annual farmers’ market season with high hopes of luring passersby to 18 stops from Lee to Barnstable by summer’s end.

“We could be someplace quiet; that would be nice,’’ said Mark Lamoureux, purveyor of sweet stuff in all flavors for HoneyBees-R-Us Apiaries of Palmer. “But we need to be where the people are.’’

The markets have flourished to greater and lesser degrees along the Mass. Pike for about a decade, drawing quite a crowd at Charlton, where travelers found everything yesterday from chili dip and strawberries to goat’s milk gelato to go with their fast-food fries and ketchup.

Now, with the merging of the Turnpike Authority and the Highway Department, the new Department of Transportation is expanding the slow-food concept to seven more plazas in Newton, Lexington, Beverly, Bridgewater, Plymouth, and Barnstable. The farmers’ markets are scheduled to run through the fall and are open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends.

Will they become a destination for the shoppers of Greater Boston who can already patronize farmers’ markets and local stands in, shall we say, more bucolic settings? Farmers had set up shop at only three plazas on the Pike yesterday. This early in the growing season, it’s hard to say how the concept will play on Route 128.

But the sound of traffic did not phase the half-dozen customers who queued up at Charlton to buy honey in the raw, honeycomb, honey mixed with ginger, even bee pollen to sprinkle on yogurt.

Charlie and Penny Poirier of Wells Beach, Maine, remembered buying honey at this stop — or was it on the eastbound side? — last summer.

“It was the best honey I ever ate,’’ said Penny, 65, a retired schoolteacher.

The farmers pay nothing to sign up at the shopping plazas, but must promise not to compete directly with permanent tenants, such as D’Angelo’s, Fresh City, and McDonalds. And their fast-food, self-serve counterparts welcome the spring and summer company.

Terri Murray, general manager of the Gulf Express gas stations and convenience marts at 11 plazas along the Pike, says the farmers’ market concept was hatched to create “extra added value’’ for travelers, going hand in hand with other customer-friendly ideas such a late-night free coffee on heavily traveled holiday weekends.

During the season’s busiest months — typically mid-June through August — farmers markets in Charlton, Framingham, and Natick draw the highest volume of customers, she said. Charlton tends to attract travelers bound to or from Connecticut and New York, while Framingham and Natick are evening stops for business commuters.

“They’re apt to say, ‘Ooh, the farmers market is on; tonight I’ll stop in to pick up tomatoes for dinner,’ ’’ said Murray.

To promote such visits to the plazas, the Department of Transportation puts out signs along highways. Dave Fenton, who oversees the program, said he and his staff work throughout the season to coordinate setup, breakdown, and even conflict resolution.

“If they’re selling the same products, I try to send them to a different service area,’’ Fenton said. “I don’t like farmers selling the same products in the same area.’’

Murray said she has never seen competition crop up between the markets and other retailers. In Charlton, she said, one of the farmers even supplied the Gulf store with the same maple syrup and sauces he sold outside at his stand.

Now, according to highway officials, the challenge is to lure farmers to the new plazas.

Heather Aveson of Wilson Farms in Lexington said the Wilsons had not yet been contacted by the state, but they were “very familiar with the turnpike farms and think it’s a great idea.’’

But one farmer, Dennis Busa of Busa Farm in Lexington, found news that Lexington would host a highway market less welcome.

“It’s become a fad,’’ he said, adding that farmers’ markets that offer a variety of goods and services, all in one location, have drawn customers away from the traditional farm shop or roadside stand in recent years.

“It’s not my zucchini against your zucchini,’’ said Busa. “It’s my zucchini against the flea market.’’

Lori Deliso, comanager of the Lexington Farmers Market, said the state’s program might provide new opportunity to grow business for local farmers.

“I’m really curious to see what happens with that,’’ she said of the Lexington highway plaza. “I don’t like to look at farmers markets as competition. We’re losing farmland like crazy. Farmers who come out to market, it benefits them a lot.’’

It’s also a welcome relief to some of the long-haul truckers who tire of burgers and nuggets.

Wayne Smith, 66, of Calgary, Alberta, drives a food-transport truck for a living. He went to the honey stand twice during his stop yesterday while his rig waited nearby, full of frozen crab from Newfoundland, bound for Schenectady, N.Y.

“I bought one for myself,’’ Smith said. “And I was telling my wife about it, and she said ‘Why don’t you get one for Mum?’ ’’

And so he bought his mother-in-law a jar.

Farmers’ markets — really any form of fresh food, Smith said — is always preferable to the stereotypical truckers’ fast-food feast from the passenger’s seat.

“I’ve got a fridge in there, you know?’’ he said. “Things that come naturally are totally in vogue, right now. You pretty much try to stop at a grocery store, but even then you have to pick through everything.’’

At the Charlton plaza on the eastbound side of the Turnpike, teacher Patti Murphy, 52, of Oakland, N.J., stood in front of a booth run by Kay and Frank Magrone, owners of Shaker Kitchen in Athol.

“What a great place to have a farmers market,’’ Murphy said to the pair.

Stopping on the way to her son’s graduation at the University of New Hampshire, she filled her bag with jars of triple-berry jelly and chili dip.

Could she find this kind of fare on the highway in her home state?

“Not on the New Jersey Turnpike!’’ she said.

Then she thought about it and added. “They could do it there, though.’’

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