Farmstand

“That’s the craze now: Farmers markets.”

The words were uttered by Bob Marshall, owner of Marshall’s Farm and Marshall’s Fenway Farm Stand, as he sat in his modest back office of the latter. “I’m from the old school that if you’re going to have something once a week,” he asked, “why not have it seven days a week?”

That’s exactly what Marshall has done with his urban farm stand: A new off-season source for urbanites seeking farm fresh produce. It’s a particularly appealing concept in Boston, where the off-season makes up most of the year and residents are left with the sole option of buying sustainable fruits and vegetables from the likes of Whole Foods and Trader Joes. Not to knock their efforts, of course, but Marshall prides and differentiates himself as a bonafide local business. “Local produce, local products,” he says.

Which is how he got into this business – for those who care to call it that – in the first place. The Fenway farm stand, which first opened in November 2009, broke off from the larger, older Gloucester, MA Marshall Farm, a multi-generational farm established in the early 1900s, when it was just a milking farm. Today, it’s no longer dairy-centric, but fully operational between Memorial Day and early November.

Samuels & Associates, a real estate developer that wanted to test use of the vacant building where the stand now resides, first approached Marshall about opening a shop. Boston City Councilor Mike Ross had encouraged them to engender more community involvement, like a year-round source of fresh food. The timing paralleled one of the first things Marshall said to Samuels: “You’re not just getting a business guy. You’re getting a community guy.”

Marshall, who appears to be most comfortable in cargo shorts and a grey hoodie, said he was “out of his element” when he first met with real estate executives. But they all shared at least one mission: To benefit the neighborhood, in particular its lower income residents. The efforts echoed a national sentiment and issue frequently bringing anxiety to a concerned population: Why isn’t healthy more affordable?

For Marshall, it goes back to the idea of a local focus, beginning with a fundraising block party planned for this June to help purchase CSAs for low-income families. The idea was initially spawned by Marshall’s talks with a local nutritionist working to educate elementary school students on the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables.

“She was asking one little boy, ‘What do you eat? What do your parents make you?’” Marshall recounted. “He said, ‘They don’t make me anything. But I can’t use the stove, they’re always using it.’”

“[The parents] are making drugs,” Marshall continued. “I started welling up when she was telling the story.”

The block party is just one of many efforts made by Marshall to educate the entire community on the farm fresh gospel. He also leads short workshops at the farm stand for local high school students, sending them home with a weekly newsletter of recipes and other helpful information.

As for his own operation, he chooses to practice what he preaches in every aspect of the business, for instance, by selling produce from his own farm that’s treated with Integrated Pest Management and not chemical sprays. He also attends several trade shows throughout the year, deliberately sourcing “all locals, all small, all mom-and-pops,” a procedure that not only guarantees a fresher product but also honest relationships with business owners. 

“You know the person,” Marshall said. “I like to do business with people I can look in the eye, because they stand by the product and believe in what I’m trying to do: Have the freshest product that’s made right.”

But perhaps the most exceptional part of Marshall’s undertakings is the light he sheds on an alliance among small farm owners, rather than a competition, a refreshing sight in what’s viewed by some as an unstable field. But Marshall prides himself on the relationships he has with small farmers not only in New England, but also all along the East Coast, a connection that, for example, has helped him secure Virginia strawberries that “no Whole Foods or Trader Joes [in the area] has.”

Again, it speaks to a larger issue of lending to a community; one that, when contributed to, contributes back.

“We’re all struggling, until this economy comes back,” Marshall said. “It’s easier to win a battle when you’re fighting together.”

For more information, visit Marshall’s Fenway Farm stand.

Image: cbertel