Behind The Counters At The Ithaca Farmer’s Market
Early on a Saturday morning, the Ithaca Farmers’ Market brings the quiet, picturesque Steamboat Landing to life. Strings of lights click on overhead, woven through the wooden roof of the open-air market as vendors arrive and carefully arrange their offerings on the wooden counters. A small group of musicians set up their instruments on the outskirts of the stands. Then, at a last, the crowds arrive, completing the bustling community of local farmers, artisans, crafters and foodies that has become a cornerstone of Ithaca’s local culture. The vintage sign over the open-roofed structure reads: Ithaca Farmers’ Market: Locally Produced Within 30 Miles.
A sweet steam rises over the Cambodian food stand. Wine splashes into the glasses of wine-tasters, bags crunch as pesto and pies are carried home, and strangers break into smiles as they traverse the stalls, try new things, and are tempted by a vegetable, pastry, or local craft. A key part of the local fabric, the Ithaca Farmers Market at Steamboat Landing has brought farmers, chefs, and artisans behind wooden stands for over 40 years.
One of these wooden stalls is a weekend home to Joe Rizzo, founder and cultivator of Blue Oyster Cultivation, a local mushroom farm. Blue Oyster Cultivation is a family-run mushroom farm that prides itself on the speed in which the mushrooms make it on the table. Rizzo is grateful for the Ithaca Farmers’ Market, which he describes as a flashier market with many more tourists—even flashier than the Tribeca Greenmarket, where he sells in the city.
Rizzo’s passion for growing mushrooms began when he was a teacher living in New York City, teaching botany and life sciences to inner-city middle schoolers that he started growing mushrooms. He chose fungi for their quick life cycle, which made them easier for young students to learn about. Four years ago Rizzo and his family moved from New York City to Ithaca and started Blue Oyster Cultivation using the methods he’d used in teaching.
“We were tired of the traffic. We decided to pull up stakes and come to Ithaca. Ithaca is one of those special places, a micrologically astute community,” Rizzo said.
His love of education still persists after the move and career change; he now aims to educate the public through his second publication of a mushroom field guide, and first production of a “Grow Your Own” kit. The two projects that were funded on Kickstarter are shared with a certain passion in his eyes as he eluded to the possible science fair projects that kids could use them for.
Rizzo and his wife cultivate their mushrooms both indoors and outdoors. Inside, mushrooms are grown in straw and sawdust bags, and are ready to be harvested in about three weeks. The outdoor process takes longer: logs are drilled, injected with spores and left outside for over a year to yield the same effect. Although Rizzo differentiates the outdoor mushrooms on his table, he charges the same price. Both find their way to tables in Tribeca, and Ithaca, as well as some local restaurants.
“I hope that my cultivation has brought a new appreciation for the beauty, nutrition, and taste of mushrooms,” Rizzo said.
While Rizzo’s foray into mushroom farming came as a complete twist from his earlier teaching career, other vendors at the farmer’s market are living out a lifelong goal. Maryrose Livingston, shepherd of The Northland Sheep Dairy, had always wanted to work with animals—but it hadn’t always been about the sheep.
“We were both cow people, my husband and I,” Livingston said.
The couple first happened upon the idea of working with sheep after a mishap when they bought the wrong type of land for the organic cows’ milk farm they had planned to own. They decided to spend four month in England while they were selling the farm, and spent three months apprenticing on Sleight farm in Somerset, England. It was through their time there that Livingston and her husband fell in love with working with sheep.
“Their flock mentality is still super intact, and I really like working with groups of animals like that,” Livingston said. They are very willing to be shepherded. They are very calm animals to be around and because I had planned on making cheese, you just couldn’t beat the quality of sheep’s milk. Its unlike any other milk out there.”
Though Livingston lives in Marathon, N.Y. today, she is originally from Olympia, Wash. She moved Ithaca primarily because of the affordable farmland, but she has become a leader in the local farming community. She is president of the Board of Directors for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY). Livingston carries pride in the 100% grass-fed farm that they operate. Her husband works with the other animals that allow it to be run on draft animal power. The low carbon emission, coupled with the rare use of chemical parasite treatments on the ewes, the holistic use of the whole lamb, and other organic and sustainable practices has certified them as a Farmer’s Pledge Farm.
She rarely strays from the farm during milking season. As a dairy farmer she comments on the poor set up of the farmers market that discourages dairy farmers.
“Sometimes I feel like an outlier,” Livingston comments, “Dairy animals are on a very specific milking schedule, and I can’t decide to not milk them because I want to go to the market. The crossbred ewes come first.”
She uses crossbred ewes because they fare better on a grass-fed diet and have milk with more butterfat, which makes for a better cheese. Through breeding, shearing, spinning, cheese making, and butchering very little lamb goes to waste. Among all of the processes Livingston enjoys being with her flock the most, and is able to balance the kinship with lambs that she sends to the butcher.
Other vendors take a less methodical, more philosophical approach to their craft. Scott VanGaasbeck, owner and artist at Under The Tree, approaches pottery like a method actor. The sustainable farm and homestead, which he runs with his wife Crystal Calabrese, is a culmination of VanGaasbeck’s pottery, the couple’s leatherwork, and the family’s fruit orchards. The Farmers’ Market also has a deeper connection for he and his wife: it was where they first met. Romance only blossomed years later, after she traded some work as a farm hand and fiddle teacher for his pottery lessons.
“We were just working together and we had this kind of trade going. We hit it off really well and worked really well together,” he said. “At this point I couldn’t really fire the kiln without her.”
VanGaasbeck has strong roots in Ithaca, having graduated from Cornell with a degree in Natural Resources. He had originally traveled out west and worked building houses, furniture, and textiles among other hands on professions before he went into pottery. It started because he found some clay exposed on his new homestead. He started “fearlessly” playing with the clay, eventually building a rudimentary kiln for his experiments. Now his process is much more developed. The wood powered kiln is fired about three times a year and can hold about 1,000 pieces. Each vessel, made and glazed from clay made on site, is placed in the best place for the vision of its look.
“The flames move through the kiln, dodge and dance around the pots,” said VanGaasbeck. “Some pieces like it right in the flame, others like the cooler shadows. It’s a journey to find the right reactions and style for each piece.”
Recently Calabrese’s craft of leatherworking has been revived, as the couple designs and produce leather bags together. They typically buy vegetable-tanned leathers from a supplier in Elmira and then try many patterns and designs to find the best one for the grain and size of the hide. They use unique designs and a distinctive hand-stitched technique used in shoe making.
“It’s a part of the animal, and this makes its even more important to us, to make things that are really special and will last a really long time, to do justice to the hide to make a striking and distinctive design that won’t be left in the back someone’s closet.”
VanGaasbeck wants each piece of pottery, each leather bag, and each fruit off the tree to be a masterpiece.
“I’m lucky because people in Ithaca have very sophisticated tastes and appreciate the artistry of the process,” VanGaasbeck said.
So far he has reached his goal of supporting his family with an “integrated livelihood” but it has not been easy. He often works 70 hours a week to produce at a level that is demanded by his customers and needed to support his family.
When asked if he’s ever pondered taking an easier road to income he laughed. “I make things compulsively. Its just part of my nature. If I wasn’t doing this I’d be doing something else in the artisanal realm.”
The road to a modern artisanal livelihood presents unique challenges to the vendors at the farmers market. While the lifestyle has not always been easy for Rizzo, Livingston or VanGaasbeck, the unique rewards of being involved in every part of the process—from creation to selling—makes the process worthwhile for each of them.
Although both technical and fundamental challenges arise, they continue to offer the Ithaca community their gifts. Their faces express the quiet realization of a life chosen for them. As Rizzo burned to get out of the city, Livingston pursued an affordable farm, and VanGaasbeck knew he could make a “swell homestead.” Each was brought to the farmers’ market not as much by choice as by an internal drive to coexist in a unique way with the Earth. This drive is what makes Steamboat Landing rich with the stories of both the challenges and optimism of the entrepreneurial artisans, in a relationship that both strengthens and is strengthened by the local community.
Gillian Wenzel is a freshman Business Administration major who would like to assure readers that this article contains no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.