That Chris Cirkus took the helm at the Trenton Farmers Market shouldn’t be too surprising. She’s made a full-time career out of managing multiple part-time farmers markets in the area. So when it came time to find a successor to Jack Ball—the manager of the Trenton Farmers Market for 39 years—Cirkus jumped at the chance…to find one.
About a year ago, Ball fell ill. He’s feeling a lot better, but at the time, the 74-year-old felt it would be best to step down. So Gary Mount, owner of Terhune Orchards and a member of the Trenton Farmers Market board, called Cirkus and Beth Feehan to help find a successor.
Cirkus managed the West Windsor Farmers Market (and still does) and Feehan used to. The pair also co-managed the 31 & Main Farmers Market at the College of New Jersey. So the Trenton Farmers Market board brought them in as consultants, thanks in part to their steep connections in the farmers market game.
“We found a few candidates and they hired someone,” Cirkus said. “But the woman declined the position just before she was supposed to start.”
Around the beginning of autumn, Cirkus ran into Mount and asked how the new manager was working out. When she learned that there was no new manager and still a position to fill, Cirkus figured she might as well go for it.
She officially took over at the end of January, with the business operating nicely in the black and a whole lot of history to contend with.—which she’s actually pretty fascinated by.
“I’m just learning the historical knowledge,” she said. “It’s unbelievable.”
What started as a gathering of growers at the Delaware River about a century ago found a permanent home on Spruce Street in 1948. That’s 71 years, if you’re counting, which Cirkus clearly is, given how upset she said she is that she wasn’t in charge for the market’s 70th birthday last year. That said, she’s already planning for a 75th birthday befitting of the market’s rich history, even though she’s aware how much work needs to get done between now and then.
A lot of the work centers on what the market’s been and what she’d like to see it become. See, while the market—incorporated as a co-op in 1939—has nine main farmers who sell there, the remainder of the 40 businesses around the market are a mix of everything from crafts to home services.
Cirkus doesn’t have anything against those businesses, and she’s aware that they bring in a pretty steady stream of revenue for the place, but she wants to expand the number of farmers and food options.
“We could fill the space with food and art,” she said. “As a farmer-owned cooperative, it’s gotten a little far away from the farmers.”
One of the market’s centerpieces during Jack Ball’s time at the helm was the Antique & Crafts Show, an annual event that Ball introduced to help cover the lean winter months, when only two of the market’s farmers generally are still selling produce there. And while Cirkus appreciates the idea and the fact that the show rakes in enough money to keep the lights on, she said there are other ways to generate revenue.
“I see the market as a great opportunity for a lot of small artisan foodmakers,” she said. “Lots of artists and musicians and foodmakers.”
She also sees Trenton as a prime spot from which to connect with the Cherry Street Kitchen, a “food incubator” on Pennsylvania Avenue that lets foodmakers have access to a commercial kitchen without having to buy a whole new one on their own, and to expand places for vendors of, say, vegetarian or vegan foods.
‘I owe it to the farmers, the merchants, and the community groups [to listen].’
She definitely wants to bring in the younger crowd, mainly the families who have made the Trenton/Ewing/Lawrence area home while they trek to New York, Princeton, and Philadelphia for work. These younger, working families, she said, are the one who crave a more food-centric farmers market experience. They want to shop local, buy local, and hang out among artisinal and specialty foodmakers where the energy is good.
She’s enthusiastic—“The visions in my head are endless”—but she’s also aware of the work all her visions will entail.
“I have an uphill battle,” she said.
Part of the battle includes maintaining the old-school charm of the market, which pretty much always ran on a profit.
Cirkus is aware that new-school ideas are fine, but she doesn’t want to just throw the apple cart over just because she has it in front of her. She does plan to eventually build a display of some of the old photos and ledgers and trinkets—of which there are scores—that she’s found in the office.
She also has no plans to get rid of the support staff who’s been helping to keep the market running, like Carol the secretary or the guy who plows the snow. She’s also not going to expel favored sellers who’ve also been at Trenton for years. Creative Wrapping and Maryanne McCabe (a jewelrymaker) are fixtures at Trenton Farmers Market, Cirkus said.
So rather than rewriting the whole book, Cirkus wants to have a balance of food and crafts and entertainment that would make the market vibrant and draw new crowds of younger people who can help sustain the market and its vendors for another seven decades.
Cirkus said she went into the job trying to not scare any of the vendors or workers at the market.
“Before I accepted the job, I went on a few stealth missions to see who everyone was,” she said.
She found a pretty universally pleasant vibe among the vendors and a few favorites—like the applesauce made by a lady named Marlene. Cirkus was just as surprised as you that anyone would talk so glowingly about applesauce, but she swears she ate a whole jar of it in one sitting the first time she tasted it.
So she’s got a lot to think about, but she also has a lot of time to think it all through. Accordingly, she plans to let a few things play out and not make any giant moves out of the gate. But her presence is already being felt in subtle ways.
“I changed the radio station and already people are saying, ‘Wow, the music’s great.’” she said.
This spring, she plans to have the building power-washed and then touch up some paint—“a little spit and polish” to make the place a little brighter and cleaner, she said.
She also plans to stay engaged with the market’s 6,000-strong, and apparently really loyal, Facebook family. She’s built a sturdy social media following for the West Windsor Farmers Market too, but says the two markets have very different followers.
“In West Windsor, they’ll like a post and then go on with their day,” she said. Trenton, on the other hand, “is very vocal. People have a lot to say, they’ve shared all the articles and stuff about Jack. People were asking me who I was. It’s humbling.”
But at least Facebook helped her clear up a few misperceptions, she said. The most panic-inducing was when word got out that Jack Ball was leaving the market, people got the impression the market was closing altogether.
Fortunately for her, Cirkus was able to stem the rumors before they got out of hand, though many of her fans from West Windsor might wonder who’s in charge at their farmers market now. Well, for the moment, it’s still Chris Cirkus. She’s looking for a replacement who will carry on what the market is, but until she finds the right hands to leave it in, she’ll be pulling double duty there and in Trenton.
And in case you’re wondering if she’s intimidated by the scale of all this, no.
“I’m a Scorpio,” she said. “In my adulthood I’ve learned that I’m a true Scorpio—I’m pretty thick-skinned but I always listen before I leap. I owe it to the farmers, the merchants, and the community groups [to listen].”