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“I’ve lived in Fresh Meadows all my life, and I never knew this was here.”

Kevin Sims has heard similar sentiments many times. He’s the manager of the Down to Earth Farmers Market in Cunningham Park, which hosts some 20 vendors on Sunday morning and early afternoon, from April through December, at one edge of the park. Considering that Cunningham comprises 358 acres of athletic fields, hiking and biking trails and picnic grounds, and is just one part of a 2,800-acre corridor of greenspace in the wide-open spaces of eastern Queens, a once-a-week farmers market might easily be overlooked.

On our first visit, however – even before we enjoyed a blueberry scone, crisp samples of apple and watermelon radish, a pair of hearty empanadas, a vegan “brookie” and an essential morning cup of coffee – we quickly saw how the market has cultivated a relationship with the community. Or, at least, with those members of the community who know where and when to find it.

Down to Earth currently operates eight more markets: two in Manhattan, two in Brooklyn and four more in suburban Westchester County, north of New York City, where the organization’s first market opened in 1991. Individually and as a whole, the markets support a strong regional food system of local farmers and artisanal producers who source locally whenever possible. In the words of the Down to Earth website, they create “special places for neighbors to meet, shop, and connect.”

“Very hands-on” is how Kevin describes the Cunningham market. In common with all the Down to Earth markets – which were created in response to industrial farming and all its attendant social and environmental concerns – Cunningham is home to smaller-scale operations. It’s “based on people,” Kevin adds, not on big business. The men and women staffing the tents might well have been growing, harvesting, baking, packaging or labeling their wares not too long before pulling up to the market.

True, we appreciate the market for its convenience – here, we could do the lion’s share of our food shopping in one fell swoop. On a typical Sunday, vendors bring a wide variety of local, seasonal produce, as we’d expect, as well as pickled vegetables, plus meat, dairy, bread and other baked goods, honey, eggs, grains, pasta, olive oil, sauces, coffee and distilled spirits. But we appreciate the atmosphere, too.

Among vendors and returning customers – this market was founded in 2017 – we sensed a generally neighborly spirit throughout the various stalls, even when we couldn’t make out the conversations. We did catch wind of a little music, here and there, but it was unobtrusive; a Louis Armstrong rendition of “Hello, Dolly!” at one end of the market didn’t clash with the contemporary tunes at the other end. Kids were everywhere, some being encouraged by their parents to try something that they’d never tasted, others, sleepily, just along for the ride.

Many children, on the day of our visit, also had the chance to show their artistic sides. Kevin and Gabi Mateo-Saja, Down to Earth’s market operations associate, transformed crushed fragments of colored chalk into water-soluble paints that the youngsters used to decorate the parking lot, if only till the next rainfall, near the market manager’s tent.

Gabi’s responsibilities take her to all the Down to Earth markets, which she helps in running not only smoothly, but sustainably – such as by reducing market waste, especially in putting old things to new uses. Upcycling old chalk is just one particularly colorful example.

By this time Kevin and Gabi began mixing chalk paint for the kids, we were ready for something colorful of our own, to nosh on. We began at The Sconery, whose owner lives in Sunnyside, Queens, but bakes in a commercial kitchen just over the city line in Nassau County, to the east. It was tough to pass up the cranberry-orange, but our lightly crusted blueberry scone was a wonderful example of just how tender a scone can be.

At the Halal Pastures Farm stand, we peered into chilled cases of butchered meat – cows, goats, lambs, turkeys and chickens are raised on this farm in Orange County, north of the city – but it was a tasting display of radishes that caught our eye. We got the rundown on which were sweeter, which spicier and which best for our evening salad, and, after trying them all, took away a small bag of inwardly bright watermelon radishes.

After a few sample slices from Great Joy Family Farm, also based in Orange County, we carried off a single Evercrisp apple, the sort of produce we’d expect at a New York market. We also carried off a revelation: Great Joy grows five varieties of rice, which the farmers hothouse till about May, before transplanting the seedlings. We’d never heard of rice paddies so far north!

The namesake of Jessy’s Pastries, who today does her baking in Nassau Country, grew up in Lima, Peru, and began her business by baking the dulce de leche sandwich cookies called alfajores. These were tempting, but baked empanadas – savory and more substantial – called out to us instead. Chicken-and-cheddar was very good; black bean, enlivened with corn, red bell pepper and onion, was terrific.

We’re happily omnivorous, but the brief menu at Bunny’s Vegan Bakery also made us curious. A “brookie,” evidently, was some combination of brownie and cookie, but how good could it possibly be? Very good, we found, more brownie-rich than cookie-crunchy, something we might seek out again on a summertime visit to Bunny’s home base, Rockaway Beach.

We enjoyed a number of other items at the market, too, but a potent cup from Cano Coffee Company was essential. To be sure, coffee cultivation requires a much warmer climate than New York can provide, but beans grown and harvested at the family estate, in Colombia, are roasted by Cano locally, in Queens.

As at most farmers’ markets, early birds get the best selection. Even though we arrived at the market before the stated 9:00 a.m. opening time, many stalls were already busy serving customers. We didn’t queue up immediately for our cup of coffee, but we were careful not to wait too long, either – by midday, as other stands were consolidating their displays, the coffee canisters were running on empty.

So, for that matter, were supplies of chalk-based paint, along with the energy of many youngsters. But a recycling bin – where customers could deposit unwanted clothing and textiles that they no longer wanted, but that might find fresh uses somewhere else – was full almost to overflowing. What goes around, comes around!

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Dave Cook

Published on June 10, 2024

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