Go to the Princeton Junction train station on any given Saturday in the spring and summer, and you’ll likely hear live music and detect the smells of fresh produce and foods like freshly baked pasta, curries and chutney.
Follow your nose and ears, and you’ll eventually find yourself at the West Windsor Community Farmers Market, which takes up residence in the Vaughn Drive parking lot from May to November.
The market kicks off its 15th season on May 5 after having spent the winter months inside the Windsor Athletic Club.
“We have everything from eggs, meats, cheeses, to fresh locally sustainable caught seafood, to fruits and vegetables,” says market manager Chris Cirkus.
The WWCFM was founded in 2004 with eight farms and one baker, and it has since grown to become a comprehensive grocery shop, if not more.
Along with foods and produce, the market also hosts live music from local groups.
“We have an engagement with community groups and musicians so that there’s a festive feel when you show up at the market,” says Cirkus.
She says that market board member Gretchen Jaeckel is a musician and schedules the music for the market.
“We’ve got a pretty consistent roster of musicians,” Cirkus says. “Music is a very fun part of the market because it’s right in the middle, and we’ve got good seating. Kids will stand in front of the musicians and dance and twirl, which is a joy to see.”
Cirkus, a West Windsor resident for the past 18 years, became manager around eight years ago.
She says that the opportunity fit both her interests and her schedule. “I have been a lover of good food my entire life. I grew up in a home with an amazing mom who cooked, and we even had a giant garden.
“I was working at the Beth Chaim Preschool, where I had created a cooking program for preschoolers. At that time, the market was advertising for a new manager, and it fit my need for another part-time job.”
Since becoming manager, Cirkus has organized farmers market conferences, and has helped start up the Trenton and Ewing farmers markets.
The market also depends on the efforts of volunteers from within the community, which include the people who serve on the 10-member board of directors and students who are looking for credit towards their school community service requirements.
“There are so many life skills that come from a space where you’re directly interacting with people every week, whether it be event planning, logistics, relationships,” Cirkus says.
She adds that she is open to having volunteers ages 14 and up, and provides community service certificates at the end of the season.
“When we moved here, I remember having conversations with friends about a local farmers market,” says board member and West Windsor resident Craig Goodfriend.
He says that the market has become a great educational experience for him and his family.
“We didn’t have any children at the time but I remember my wife and I drove by to check it out, and we loved it,” he says. “What it turned into was an experience with my wife and kids as well.”
Goodfriend says that his oldest son, Ben, 10, goes to the market with him at 7:30 a.m. and helps set up. He also volunteers his time at the information booth desk.
Cirkus says that running the market has helped her realize the importance of community.
“Every single walk of life is visible at our market,” she says. “I do cooking demonstrations at the senior center, and those seniors then come to the market. There are families that I know from when I taught at the pre-school who still come to see me. Furthermore, the farmers market is such a wonderful opportunity to meet people I would have never met otherwise.”
Though Cirkus has worked with a variety of markets, she believes there are certain qualities that make the WWCFM unique.
“Certainly our connection to New Jersey farmers is unique, because its not the model that any other market follows,” she says. “The community that we’ve created at the market is so positive, both behind and in front of the scenes. We all have relationships to the consumer and the community members, and we have great relationships with the vendors, and the farmers and vendors have great relationships. It’s a win-win-win of positivity.”
Recently, the market started using a token system called MarketBucks. Attendees can swipe their card and receive a certain amount of tokens of equal value, which they can then use to pay vendors.
Adding to this token system, the market was approved to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payment two seasons ago.
“Because of an amazing grant through the Garden State Good Food Network, we are able to match SNAP purchases up to $15 for additional fruits and vegetables,” Cirkus says. “We felt that it was our responsibility to make sure that the farmers market was accessible to everyone, regardless of if you were on food assistance or not.”
Along with SNAP assistance, WWCFM also helps give back to those in other communities.
“One thing about community groups that we’re extremely proud of is our relationship with Arm in Arm, which runs food pantries in Princeton and Trenton,” Cirkus says. “Their “Yes, We CAN” volunteers solicit cash donations from shoppers, which is then spent directly from our farms. Last season, our shoppers’ generosity brought in over 9,000 pounds of fresh food for fellow community members.”
Vendors at the farmers market agree with Cirkus’ assessment of how special the market truly is.
Mike Rassweiler of North Slope Farm, which sells herbs, fruits, vegetables and eggs, has been a part of the WWCFM since it began, and believes the managing team and the location make the market a special place.
“The founders, market managers and volunteers manifest an incredibly positive energy that helps lift the customers and the vendors to a higher plane,” Rassweiler says. “Also, the location is excellent. The actual layout of the parking lot is unique in that there’s a safe pedestrian area surrounded on both sides by trees, completely surrounding by easily accessible parking.”
Mario Zeck of LoRe Pasta, a vendor that sells fresh pasta and sauces, stresses the importance of Cirkus and the market both to his business and to the agricultural community as a whole.
“Basically the market was the kickoff of our business. We contacted Chris a few years ago and basically asked her if we could come into the market,” Zeck says. “She helped us focus on local food and supporting the farmers. She even helped us find a mill that has local grain, and really helped us create our business from the beginning. She was a huge help for us.”
Zeck also says that the entire management team “really cares about the farmers and the community. It’s hard to explain, but the vibe in that place is so much fun. It’s my one day off, so I like working with my wife and kids, and we just have a great time.”
“Even if we become big enough to not do markets, we’ll always be at West Windsor,” Zeck adds. “That’ll be our spot, just because it helped build our business, so we’re always going to support it and be a part of it.”
Cirkus notes the addition new vendors this year, including Mishti Chocolates (a vegan chocolatier), Curries and Chutnies and Morganics Family Farm. Despite the additions, she remains focused on maintaining the family environment established over the past 15 years.
“Every year there’s a bit of ebb and flow,” she says. “The running joke is that it’s impossible to get into our market, but once you’re in, you’re family because we really protect our farms and vendors.”
Looking ahead, the WWCFM’s focus is not on the growth of the market itself, but of the surrounding community.
“It’s about the growth of the farmers, and if we’re advocating anything it’s giving people a chance to eat fresh local good, and support the community,” Goodfriend says. “That’s really what we’re trying to accomplish. At our market, you can buy incredible and healthy local food that both helps the community and helps yourself from a health perspective.”
“To give a community space for folks to engage with each other and with farmers and vendors will always be the mission of the market,” Cirkus says. “Positivity breeds positivity, and our market gives people the unique chance to pause and appreciate the town we live in. That’s a very unique thing to look forward to.”
This year’s market runs from May 5 through November 17 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., rain or shine, at the Vaughn Drive Lot just off Alexander Road on the southbound side of the Princeton Junction Train Station. Pricing is determined by each farm and vendor. There is no cost for admission, and parking in the Vaughn Drive lot is free for the market. For more information, visit westwindsorfarmersmarket.org or call (609) 933-4452.