There’s something special about planting a seed, watching it grow, and reaping its fruit. “Some people just don’t know what their mission in life is,” says Gretel Norgeot, owner of Checkerberry Farm and president of the Orleans Farmers Market. “But I feel like growing food is my mission.”
Norgeot started with picking tomatoes off the vine in her family’s gardens in East Orleans and, at eight years old, hanging out at nearby Mayo’s Duck Farm. After studying electronics, nursing and agriculture as one of the first students at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School, she married and had three children with her husband, Jeff.
In 1995, she discovered the Orleans Farmers Market and became a vendor during its sophomore year, selling cut flowers, honey and vegetables. “I realized that people preferred produce,” she says, “and I could grow produce.” In 1999, the market’s original president moved off Cape, and Norgeot decided to fill her shoes the next year. And because she was growing produce for the market—and, later on, markets in Hyannis and Provincetown—she knew she’d need to grow more than her home’s acre of raised beds would allow. So she and Jeff bought and eventually cleared a property in South Orleans so overgrown with brambles and bittersweet that they hadn’t even noticed a two-story building on the property.
Past the yawning front lawns, Checkerberry Farm’s eight and a half acres now have too much going on to fully account for: beds for tomatoes, asparagus, sugar snap peas, and other produce; 75 hens; five beehives; a side garden and greenhouse for her daughter Marie; and the farm’s inaugural crops of wheat and rye, both of which will be out of the ground by the end of August. And, of course, there’s Norgeot’s staple: garlic, growing in dense rows of green stalks rising from the nearly 4,000 bulbs underneath.
The uptick in Norgeot’s farming has coincided with the growth of the Orleans Farmers Market itself, which sees its 20th season this year. And while Norgeot recalls crowds lining up before the market’s early-morning opening even in the mid-1990s, a typical Saturday in 2013 sees an estimated 1,000 visitors patronizing the 30-something farmers and growers, all from Barnstable County. Norgeot says the swelling interest in local food is tied to the local economy, health concerns, and a basic interest in where food comes from. “If you go buy a pepper or a tomato from somebody, you can ask them, ‘Where and how did you grow this? Where did you pick it?’” she says. “And I think consumers like knowing that if they have a question, they can get the answer.”
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