At first light, Darcy Amin was out in the fields, handpicking corn straight from the stalk in Middleborough. Only hours later, she unloaded bundle after bundle at Boston’s City Hall Plaza, an unforgiving expanse where no crop could grow.
Alongside Amin’s booth on the outskirts of the plaza, farmers arrived early Wednesday to set out their harvests, a cornucopia of summer squash and cherry tomatoes, peppers and peaches, blueberries bright and bittersweet.
Mary Ashley was among the first to arrive at the market, carefully sifting through a heaping pile of Amin’s corn. With a trained eye, she weighed a few ears in her hands, curled back the husks so the kernels peeked out. After nearly 60 summers, she knew her corn.
“Nice and full,” she said approvingly. “Fresh. Plump. Ready.”
This summer, there are some 250 farmers’ markets across the state, twice as many as 10 years ago. The burst of demand has brought fresh produce to country towns, sleepy suburbs, and bustling Boston, where urbanites can scoop up dinner on their way to the subway.
The twice-weekly market in Copley Square is the state's largest, and smaller markets have popped up in all corners of the city, from Maverick Station to Mattapan Square.
At the root of it all, farmers and patrons agree, are corn and tomatoes, mouth-watering summer staples that all but demand to be eaten fresh.
“There’s no such thing as a summer farmers market in Massachusetts without really great corn and really great tomatoes,” Kate Stillman said as she unloaded the morning’s bounty from her family’s farm in Central Massachusetts. “The other stuff is just icing on the cake.”
For Karen Roberts, a retiree in the South End, corn on the cob is a summer tradition, a sweet, juicy crunch that seems to bring the years together.
This time of year, she goes to farmers’ markets three times a week, sometimes more, to pick it up fresh. That evening, she microwaves it in the husk, so it comes out nice and moist. It’s faster that way and doesn’t mess up a pot. And it tastes so sweet, it doesn’t need even a touch of butter. “It’s a treat,” she said, tasting it.
People differ on the proper way to eat corn, either back and forth like a typewriter or round and round, and opinions run strong. Most people learned one way, when they were young, and never thought to change. As long as you get every last kernel, it doesn’t much matter. The mess is part of the fun.
The popularity of farmers’ markets is a modern trend, but rests in good part on nostalgic appeal. There’s something about buying straight from the farm that harkens back to simpler times, many say. And the food itself recalls childhood days, from summer picnics with checkered tablecloths to berry picking with sand pails.
“It brings back memories,” said Anthony Rossetti, setting out a spread of berries and several varieties of tomatoes from Foppema’s Farm, a 75-acre fruit and vegetable farm in Northbridge. “And it beats the supermarket every time.”
Jeff Cole — who directs Mass Farmers Markets, a nonprofit that supports and runs markets in Copley Square, Cambridge, and Somerville — said demand for fresh, locally grown food has surged in recent years, particularly as people learned that the prices are competitive with grocery stores. Now, farmers can sell their crops directly as often as they can manage.
“The only limitation is how much time the farmer has in a day,” he said.
For farmers who rise at dawn to gather the crops, then drive to Boston to sell them for several hours before heading home, markets make for long days. But especially this time of year, when so many vegetables are in season and entire truckloads can be sold in a matter of hours, such markets usually pay off.
While some produce can be collected the day before, farmers say corn needs to be picked that same morning.
“It just tastes better,” said Stillman. “I want my customers wowed by the taste.”
The transition from the quiet fields at dawn to a bustling downtown, then back again, can be jarring, farmers say. But the whole idea of urban farmers’ market is to bring the country to the city.
“It’s two totally different worlds,” Stillman said. Sometimes, at the end of a long day, it seems surreal that she shuttled between them, she said. No matter how many times she makes the trip, she never quite gets used to it.
Like many farmers’ markets, the one at City Hall Plaza is more than fruits and vegetables. For those on the move, there are doughnuts, roasted nuts, even sorbet. There’s all sorts of fresh bread and pasta sauce from New Hampshire, made from organic tomatoes.
But most are here for cucumbers, nectarines, sweet, crisp arava melons. It’s not like the grocery store, where shoppers check things off a list. People go by sight, feel, by instinct. And it’s hard to go wrong.
“There’s nothing like a fresh-grown vegetable,” said Robin Ennis, who works in Boston and tries to shop at the market once a week. “Just so delicious.”
So many people in the city listen to music as they walk or talk on the phone, lost in their own world, she said. But at the market, customers chat with vendors about what’s best and compare recipes.
“This is just really focused around community,” she said. “Homegrown, real natural things.”