End of an era at Trenton Farmers Market

New manager takes over Trenton Farmers Market after long-time market runners retire

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After Jack Ball (center) retired as manager of the Trenton Farmers Market, Chris Cirkus (far right) took the reins. Picture are Trenton Farmers Market board treasurer Jim VanHandel of Cedarville Farms, vice president Kevin Gsell of Russo’s Fruit and Vegetable Farm, Ball, president Gary Mount of Terhune Orchards and Cirkus.

If you walk around the Trenton Farmers Market these days, there’s still a pretty good chance you’ll bump into Jack Ball. So much of a chance, in fact, that a lot of people who do run into him there don’t realize he’s not the guy running the show anymore.

It’s an easy mistake to make. Any regular customer under 40 has never known another person at the helm. And Ball was only the third person to be the market’s manager since it put those iconic red letters on the roof of its Spruce Street home in 1948. Plus, given that he still putters around the market and has been helping new manager Chris Cirkus settle in, people are still seeing his face among the strawberries and greens and tables of merchandise.

But Ball is as much a shopper as anyone else now. He stepped away in January after 39 years running the place with his wife, Marcia. And, as might be expected, he’s not entirely sure what to do with his time.

“It’s been my life for 39 years,” he said. “Am I going to miss it? Sure.”

Seventy-five might seem a natural age to want to retire, but it would be a tall task to believe Jack Ball was actually looking to slow down.

“Ever since I was 10 years old I was a worker,” he said. “I lied and said I was 11. You had to be 11 to get a paper route.”

He had a route around Lalor Street and hasn’t slowed down much since.

“I always had one, two, or even three jobs,” he said. “I like to be busy.”

At 74, he didn’t want to stop being busy. Life just started making decisions for him.

“About a year ago I wasn’t feeling all that good,” Ball said, without getting into specifics. “I was concerned about the market.”

Concern meant he wanted to make sure the market was in good hands in case he was unable to work anymore. So the market’s board sought a new manager—and hired one, only to see that plan fall through. In the fallout, the market hired Cirkus, who also manages the West Windsor Farmers Market.

But by the time the new blood came to the market, Ball had recovered.

“I had some surgery,” he said. “I’m feeling much better. But you can’t go back after they hired someone and say ‘I’ve changed my mind.’”

Looking back over his time managing the Trenton Farmers Market, Ball doesn’t hide that he’ll miss the vibe and the people—the “so many terrific farmers” and other sellers he’s gotten to know over all his years there. The customers too, of course. Plenty have been regulars for as long as he can remember being at the market, he said. And that’s not the kind of thing that dissipates just because you hang up your manager’s hat for the last time.

Jack and Marcia Ball took over the Trenton Farmers Market in 1980, although Marcia had worked there as “a combination bookkeeper and secretary” starting in 1976, he said. He’d gotten to know the board members through his wife, and when the manager’s job opened up, he told her, “That’s something you and I can do.”

The Trenton Farmers Market as it appeared on opening day in 1948.

Part of the appeal was the challenge of a new thing. Actually, better stated, it was the challenge of revitalizing an old thing. While the market itself started about 100 years ago, down along the Delaware River, near what is now Arm & Hammer Park—the baseball field where the Trenton Thunder play—it was a pretty loose affair. Eventually, as roads developed, the managers found a more permanent home on Spruce Street and put up the big red roof letters.

But over its first 30 years on Spruce, the Trenton Farmers Market didn’t look like what contemporary farmers market shoppers would expect.

“When I first got to the market, I walked around with Tony Russo,” Ball said. Russo was the manager at the time. “I said, ‘Tony, there’s so many empty spots here.’ My first step was to fill all the empty spots.”

Ball filled them with non-farmers. They’ve change some over the years, but the non-farmers today include jewelry makers, home repair stands, and body/hair care outlets. Many of them are stationed at tables Ball and Nicholas Russo (Tony’s brother) made and bolted to the floor themselves.

“The idea was to bring in revenue,” Ball said. “And those tables bring in 40 or 50 thousand dollars a year. That’s nothing to shake a stick at.”

The tables have been especially helpful over the winter months, Ball said. “Many of our farmers disappear until spring,” he said. “Any additional revenue is good.”

Another early item on the to-do list for Ball was the sign. The Trenton Farmers Market shares a plot of land with Halo Farms, but even driving a bee line straight to Halo Farms, it would be impossible to miss the giant red letter spelling out “Trenton Farmers Market” in all caps on the roof of the long gray building next door.

Trouble was, the sign was in bad shape in 1980.

“That sign was dilapidated,” Ball said. “It continued to be torn up by the weather. Pieces of that sign were lying on the ground.”

A fresh new sign and a better layout, with rows of uniform tables (so it’s fair) defined the new direction of the market under Ball’s leadership. He also oversaw a new roof, new overhead doors, a revamp of the heating system, new ceilings and fans, and an upgrade to the sewer and water lines.

“We did so much in terms of maintenance and still keep it in the blue,” he said. Legacy-wise, he’s most proud of having left the market profitable and “with a little cushion in case there’s a problem.”

Ball doesn’t anticipate much trouble in Cirkus’ hands. He said she’ll do a fine job running the place and that he’s interested in seeing how her ideas play out.

Cirkus, by the way, is not that much of an outsider.

“I grew up coming here,” she said. “I shadowed Jack in January to learn the lay of the land.”

And while she said that Jack and Marcia were “very old school” in how they ran the market—not much in the way of social media and lots of old paper records, for example—she’s humbled by the fact that they ran the place for so long.

“He ran this place for 39 years,” she said. “Who does anything for 39 years?! I’ll be in my 90s in 39 years.”

That the manager of one farmers market is taking over another is a sign of the changed times for Ball. In fact, it’s related to the biggest change he’s seen in the farmers market game since his first day on the job.

“When we took over,” he said, “Trenton Farmers Market had a monopoly compared to today. Farmers markets have sprung up all over the place. Supermarkets are an additional challenge.”

The biggest challenge among all the new competition, he said, has been keeping the market “viable, alive, and well.”

What separates Trenton from the Princeton, Greenwood Avenue, Bordentown, even West Windsor markets is that those markets are seasonal. “Our farmers have to pay 12 months rent,” he said. “In those others, overhead is less.”

And that leads to the main piece of advice Ball is leaving for Cirkus. Which is to tread lightly on the idea of doing too much in the way of new directions for Trenton.

A centerpiece of the Trenton Farmers Market is the Antique & Craft Show that tides the place over during lean winter months. Cirkus isn’t exactly jonesing to scrap it, but her intentions are much more farm-and-food-centric and less about crafts.

Ball encourages Cirkus to keep the Antique & Craft Show, as well as some of the market’s longtime and generally solid moneymakers.

“I know she’s looking to put more food in the market, and that’s great,” he said. “But not at the expense of what works.”

Cirkus has heard his advice and said she’s taking it under advisement.

Taking it slow, whatever the direction the market will go, is another piece of advice Ball is leaving behind. He likes to say “If you go too fast, you’ll come in last.”

However the near future goes, Ball will continue to shop at the Trenton Farmers Market, if for nothing else than to get the stuffed cabbage he loves so much.

Outside the market walls, though, Ball is not sure what he’ll do. He said he’s trying to figure out what that will be. For the moment, Ball is busying himself with some hobbies, including his tropical fish. He’s got a few more of those than he’d anticipated, actually. He had one fish that was four inches when he bought it that’s now a foot-and-a-half long, despite never eating the feeder goldfish he bought for it. Those are now pets too, and they’re a foot long each.

But he can’t sit still for too long without going crazy. So he has one message for anyone who’ll listen:

“Does anybody need a 75-year-old with lots of energy who can’t sit still? Jack’s looking.”