The man in the designer suit bought a 20-pound bag of Macoun apples for $7.50.
"Look at this," he said, "I can hardly pick it up. You know what this would cost in a supermarket?"
"Three times as much," Victor Muto told Joe Ruffolo.
Joe, as in Joseph A. Ruffolo, president and chief executive officer of Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.
"I come here every Wednesday," Ruffolo said last week as he browsed further in the Niagara Falls City Market on Pine Avenue.
Muto remembers when it was a mecca for farmers and shoppers.
"Fifty years ago there were 75 farmers and hucksters here," said the 81-year-old patriarch of the well-known Muto family. "Now look at it. We need help."
Today, about a dozen or so farmers sell their fresh fruits and vegetables in the market, one of five community markets in Niagara County.
To qualify as a community market, as defined by the state Department of Agriculture & Markets, there must be at least three farmers selling produce.
North Tonawanda City Market is head and shoulders above the rest. The market at Robinson Street and Payne Avenue is chock-a-block with about 75 farmers hawking their fruit and vegetables at a half to a third of supermarket prices. It is the only year-round community farmers market in the county.
The other three certified community markets are tiny compared with North Tonawanda, but not when compared with Niagara Falls.
Lockport City Market, which is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, only had three vendors last summer, said Mayor Michael W. Tucker, barely qualifying as a community market. It operates from May through October.
New to the scene is Middleport Community Farmers Market, which leased stalls to 16 vendors for its 2008 season, May 9 to Oct. 31.
Barker Village Farmers Market, in the far northeast county town of Somerset, is open only from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, June 12 until Labor Day, but it is described by Cor
See Market onPage NC2
Falls mayor says market fits into 'green initiative'
nell Cooperative Extension educator Paul E. Lehman as "thriving," averaging about 10 vendors.
The North Tonawanda market is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Many of the farmers do the rounds and sell their produce at several community markets in Niagara and Erie counties. The days of operation among the many of the markets are staggered to accommodate as many farmers as possible.
The Niagara Falls city market is open between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
"Friday is our busiest day," said Muto, whose son, Alfonse, a local pharmacist, leases the market property from the city. "North Tonawanda's busiest day is Saturday, the ideal day for food shopping. If we were open Saturday, we'd probably do better."
Why isn't the Niagara Falls market open on Saturdays?
"I've been here for 60 years," Muto said, "it's always been that way."
The Niagara Falls market has fallen victim to the same ills that have plagued the city in the last 30 years -- the exodus of young people (including young farmers), the loss of jobs, a growing poverty level and an increasing number of elderly people surviving on fixed and constricting incomes.
And then there's the roof.
Until 10 years ago, the city market fronted directly on Pine Avenue and farmers sold their produce under a wide, roof-like canopy that protected them and their goods from rain.
The roof had been there for many years and was in severe disrepair when Mayor James C. Galie took office in 1996. The pavement also needed work.
As part of the overall renovation of the market, which included repaving the area and repainting stripes to mark each farmer's stall, the city relocated the market several hundred feet back from Pine Avenue. The original roof was replaced with a narrower canopy that doesn't adequately protect farmers and their produce from the weather.
Victor Muto said moving the market further back from Pine Avenue and replacing the roof with a smaller one was the city's idea. "We had no say in the matter," he said.
"When it rains we get wet," said Nancy Wienke, a Sanborn farmer whose family has been selling produce at the City Market for 100 years. "It was better for everybody when the market was closer to Pine Avenue, and the roof covered a bigger area."
Even so, Wienke's Greenhouse and Farm plans to keep selling at the market. "There are other markets around," Nancy Wienke said, "but we're loyal to this one."
So, too, are many of the people who shop there.
Michelle Hook, of Grand Island, has been coming to the market every Wednesday for 10 years to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for her family.
"I have two teenage children," she said, "and they can pack it away. I come here because of the great prices. And the people here are wonderful."
City Market shoppers buy baskets and bags full of produce containing several pounds of food, but apples, for example, work out to be just over 50 cents for a pound, compared with an average of $1.65 a pound in supermarkets. Community market green peppers cost about 80 cents a pound, compared with supermarket prices that sometimes top $2 a pound.
The market is walking distance for city resident April Parker.
"I come here once or twice a week to get fresh vegetables and fruits," said Parker. "As the mother of two young children, I concerned about the safety of the food we eat. I think the produce I get here, straight from the farm, may be a lot safer than what I'd get in the supermarket."
Sheri Senek and her brother-in-law, Mark, of the Ransomville farm that bears the family name, sell their goods at both the Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda markets. Their father, John, turned the 500-acre farm over to Mark, Sheri and her husband, Tim, when he retired a few years back.
Last week, Sheri Senek was at the Niagara Falls market on Wednesday and Mark Senek was at the North Tonawanda market on Tuesday and Thursday.
"This market is not as thriving as it used to be," Sheri Senek said of the Niagara Falls market, "but it's a nice market and we do well here."
Her brother-in-law prefers the North Tonawanda market, but he hasn't given up on Niagara Falls. The market pretty much closes down after Thanksgiving, Muto said, but it's still open for any hardy farmers who want to sell their produce over Christmas.
"I'm usually the only one there in winter," Mark Senek said.
Senek agreed with others that moving the market back from Pine Avenue and rebuilding a smaller canopy was a mistake and hurt business.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said he plans to look into improving the fortunes of the City Market as part of what he calls his "local foods program."
"The city has an interest in promoting consumption of locally grown food and supporting our farmers," Dyster said Thursday. "I'll be looking at this in the context of the whole green city initiative. I look at the North Tonawanda market as a model and will move forward from there."
Mark Houghton, who manages the North Tonawanda market for the city, said the place is booming. "Fruit and vegetables here cost a half or a third of the price you'd pay in the supermarkets," he said. "More than 5,000 people go through here on a Saturday."
The North Tonawanda market is frequented by people who come from as far as Batavia and Toronto.
Grandparents Mary and Bill Giles, of Buffalo, shop at the market at least once or twice a week. Among the items they bought last week was an eight-quart basket of tomatoes for $4, which they were going to share with their neighbors.
"Besides the prices, going to market is a social event," Bill Giles said. "The people are like old friends."
People like 95-year-old Elmer Moje, a Wheatfield farmer who started coming to the market with his father in 1918 in a horse and wagon, and has been a vendor ever since. "It used to take us an hour and a half to get here," Moje said last week. "Now it takes 15 minutes."
Moje, riding in a horse and wagon, was the guest of honor at the market's 100th anniversary three weeks ago, attended by more than a thousand people.
Improving and, well, marketing the market is one of the top priorities of Mayor Lawrence V. Soos, who sees it as a vital part of the history and economy of the community. Soos and Houghton, his personal pick for manager, with 25 years of experience in marketing, have been busy sprucing it up, with repaving, repainting the lines demarking the farmer's stalls, installing benches at strategic spots and other features to make people feel at home. They are planning a program with the North Tonawanda school district to adorn the walls of surrounding buildings with colorful murals.
"The North Tonawanda market is one of the oldest and among the largest in the state," said Jonathan Thomson, economic development specialist with the state Department of Agriculture & Markets. "It is definitely in the top tier of markets statewide."
The Niagara Falls City Market was top shelf caliber for decades during the first half of the 1900s, and although it has fallen on hard times, it is still a vital presence for many shoppers, city officials and farmers.
The shoppers have spoken for themselves. Mayor Dyster is looking to revitalizing it. As for the struggling farmers, Nancy Wienke, a member of the family that has been selling produce there for 100 years, stated it plainly, "This is our livelihood."
Lifting the Falls / Improving City Market is food for thought
As the choice of attractions grows in Niagara Falls and its surrounding communities, the options for visitors to extend their stays and explore the Buffalo Niagara region intensifies. The News Niagara Bureau has been exploring these options in an occasional series. Today, we take a closer look at the state of farmers markets in Niagara County.
Community markets in Niagara County
North Tonawanda CityMarket,
Robinson Street and Payne Avenue
Open 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (year round)
Lockport City Market,
Walnut and Pine streets
Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Monday to Sunday (May through November)
Middleport Community Farmers Market,
81 Rochester Road
Open 4 to 7:30 p.m. Friday (May 9 to Oct. 31)
Barker Village FarmersMarket,
Open 5 to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday (June 12 to Labor Day)
Pine Avenue and 18th
Street, Niagara Falls
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Monday, Wednesday and Friday (June through November)
*A community market, as defined by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, must have at least three farmers selling produce.