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Fresh from the market

| Friday, May 4, 2012, 10:19 a.m.

For 34 years, Faye Lydick has grown flowering plants for farmers' markets. Since 1989, she's been a perennial at the Ligonier Country Market, which kicks off the 2006 season May 27, and continues 19 consecutive Saturdays through Sept 30.

Lydick, 80, of Derry Township, said of Ligonier, "It's real country, And the thing I really like about it is you meet the nicest people there."

Rich Comp earns his living by the sweat of his brow. A farmer in Mt. Pleasant Township, Comp, 60, has been a vendor at farmers' markets for more years than he would like to recall. For several years, he served on the board of directors of the Ligonier Country Market.

Three years ago, he started his own farmers' market. The Norvelt Farmers Market gets down to business July 13.

"It's a nice outlet," Comp said. "It's a win-win situation. It's good for vendors, it's good for the public."

With spring and summer comes planting -- corn, tomatoes, onions, strawberries and other produce. Roadside produce stands seem to pop up everywhere. But nowhere are the selections more choice than at farmers' markets, participants say.

Jim Mikula, of Ligonier, is the managing director of the Ligonier Country Market. A retired public school teacher and quilt maker, Mikula noted that Ligonier "is considered one of the best markets" in the state, and with some 70 vendors, one of the largest.

Mikula and his 15-member board hold vendors to a strict accounting. "If you don't grow it, make it or bake it yourself, you don't get in," Mikula said of the market's ground rules.

One of Ligonier's unique features is that not just produce, baked good and flowers are sold there. Half of the vendor booths are set aside for hand-made crafts, Mikula said.

Adding one kind of vendor to the lineup means adding another kind, he said, all in order to keep everything in balance.

This will be Ligonier's 32nd year of operation. It began small, and has expanded over the years, Mikula said, growing into its current location, a field at the intersection of Spring Road and Route 30, on the western edge of town. Market hours are 7 a.m. to noon.

It's not hard to figure out one of the chief attractions of Ligonier for vendors. Market days are crowded -- enough so that crafters and farmers alike can pocket a nice piece of change.

Diane Kellner and her husband, John, tend their crops and flowers under the name Little Hollow Gardens, on five acres in Cook Township.

The Ligonier Country Market represents "a nice combination" of new and old, produce and crafts, Diane Kellner said. In addition to profits earned, "we enjoy talking to people," she says.

"Wherever you do a farmers' market, it becomes a social event," said Lois Lazarchik, of Derry Township

Lazarchik has been going to markets of one kind or another for 30-plus years, and has gotten to know many of the nuances of market life.

"You can tell when there is a class reunion in town," she said, in part because of all the hugging and razzing that goes on.

Lazarchik is a fan as well as a vendor at Ligonier. She ticked off some of the more exotic items on sale at past markets -- things like buffalo and ostrich meat, hand-blown glass and the heads of presidents and U.S. statesmen cut from coins.

Compared to the history and tradition of Ligonier, the farmers' market in Norvelt is a startup, though seemingly a profitable startup.

Held Thursday afternoons from 3 to 6 in the parking lot next to the midget football field in town, the Norvelt Farmers' Market has drawn as many as 400 customers in a single afternoon.

"We get 11 to 12 vendors a week," Comp said. "I think that's exceptionally good for the amount of time we've been around. Some markets down east brag because they have five or six vendors."

Comp is a one-man gang, though he'd like to share the burden with a three-person board, if he could. "But you know," he said, grinning, "how it is with volunteers. You ask for volunteers and everyone looks around the room."

Comp said he chose Norvelt because he got a good car count there one day. "I stood at the football field for half an hour," he said. "I counted 269 vehicles and I said to myself, 'This is the place to be.'"

Comp frankly admits another reason he embraced the Norvelt spot is that it's close to his home. "I can be there in minutes," he said.

A third reason is that the Norvelt market takes place on a relatively small piece of ground. With an eye out for his customers, many of whom are elderly, Comp said the distance between the vendor stands and the parking lot is a short one, which helps to ease the burden for bag-carrying customers.

The theme of the Norvelt market is "Buy Fresh! Buy Local."

Farmers and flowers growers Tracie and Guy Metzler, owners of Amenity Farms, in United, sell their wares at both the Ligonier and Norvelt markets.

Full-timers at their trade, the Metzlers say they can turn a buck at the markets, but more to the point, they use the markets as a way to promote themselves and their goods. They want customers to come to them, to their farm, rather than having to go where the customers gather.

They have had some success. Customers hailing from Johnstown and Pittsburgh who attend Ligonier have been to their farm, they said.

"We miss very, very few markets," Tracie Metzler said.

Guy Metzler said the emphasis at both Ligonier and Norvelt on fresh-picked produce is crucial. "We get asked all the time, 'is this fresh• When was it picked• Did you grow these yourselves?'"

The Metzlers said some vendors cheat customers by buying produce elsewhere and passing it off as their own.

Vending is hard work, they said, partly because competition is keen and customer demands are high.

"Competition is good," Guy Metzler said. "It produces better prices (for the consumer), and people are less likely to buy garbage" if better, fresher produce is waiting to be sold at the next table.

For more information about the Ligonier Country Market, visit the Web site www.localharvest.com. For further information on the Norvelt Farmers' Market, call Rich Comp at 724-423-2541.

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