Rutgers Gardens' Farmers Market launches off Route 1
For five years, maybe more, people talked about starting a Rutgers farmers market.
It seemed like a natural for a university once associated with the world’s most famous tomato. The timing also felt right, given the popularity of urban farm markets and the rise of “locovores,” people looking to eat locally grown food.
But the idea never got off the ground until this year, when food science major Paul Valetutti, a 25-year-old former chef who describes himself as “passionate about food,” took on the job as a cooperative education project.
On May 23, after months of planning and collaboration, the weekly farmers market at Rutgers Gardens opened for business off Ryders Lane, with a half dozen vendors offering New Jersey-grown or New Jersey-made products, from strawberries to cheese and chicken pot pies.
More vendors are expected as the growing season progresses. The market also promises to integrate town, gown, and food producers: Area restaurants have promised to shop at the market, Rutgers Dining Services has made a commitment to buy unsold produce, and there are plans for restaurant chefs to do cooking demonstrations on site.
The farmers market will run every Friday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. until October 31. Volunteers interested in helping to staff the market should email Valetutti, who will be managing it, at firstname.lastname@example.org. He and other organizers hope it will become a community institution, and are looking for sponsors.
“There’s always a risk with a new venture, but we got a good response as soon as we started promoting it,” said Bruce Crawford, director of Rutgers Gardens and Valetutti’s supervisor.
It was Crawford who suggested the market be staged on the edge of the 180-acre botanic garden, just east of Route 1. His hope is that it will draw commuters and others from outside the university community. While the location is inconvenient for students, a bus route may be set up to accommodate them, he said.
The market actually got its start last winter when Valetutti learned that the university was looking for a student to get the project off the ground. He was not unfamiliar with food marketing, having worked in his family’s cured meats and sausage business in New York City, Salumeria Biellese. He signed on, earning an extra credit during the spring semester and $10 an hour.
Only later did he realize how much work was involved.
“It was really like starting a business,” said Valetutti, who enrolled at Rutgers last fall to study food science and culinology. After high school in Bergen County he studied engineering at Boston University. Later he moved to Arizona, where he worked as a chef while attending Arizona State part time.
Valetutti networked with others who had started successful farmers markets, including a Princeton University senior who started one on her campus the year before. He used family connections to learn more, and he reached out to potential farmers and vendors.
“We wanted to stay within a 30-mile radius, but we found out that most of the farms within that radius have closed,” Valetutti said. He did find one – the Giamarese Farm in East Brunswick near Milltown, a family-owned farm since the 1940s.
Jim Giamarese was interested, as was a second grower. Other vendors who showed interest include Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley, Griggstown Quail Farm, Readington Buffalo Farm, the Village Bakery in Lawrenceville, the Cook College student organic farm, and A Taste of Rubies, an internet-based cheesecake business in New Brunswick.
At that point Valetutti had the beginnings of a market. But when should it run? Weekdays weren’t a great idea, and the area was saturated with Saturday markets.
“We decided to do our market on Friday because that’s what the farmers wanted,” Valetutti said. Highland Park, just across the Raritan River, also has a Friday farmers market. But Valetutti did not think the two would be in direct competition.
A dizzying number of formalities remained. The market required permits, insurance, a public safety official, a portable john, and a hand-washing station. Lacking an advertising budget, Valetutti also had to get the word out with banners and flyers.
Opening day went smoothly, with a fair amount of traffic. Among the visitors was East Brunswick resident Joel Kopel, who came with his daughter, Dana, an undergraduate at New York University. Kopel eyed the leafy greens stacked on a shelf and asked the farmer where they had been grown.
It was exactly the kind of exchange Valetutti had hoped for. “Part of our purpose will be educating people about food,” he said.