Four decades ago there were fewer than ten farmers markets in Massachusetts. Today there are hundreds. That direct connection between consumer and farmer eliminates the middleman, so farmers earn more. But some farmers say as the number of markets grow, the number of customers isn’t keeping up.
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This is a special summer for two of the farmers markets in this region. The Saturday markets in Northampton and Greenfield are celebrating their 40th anniversaries.
Devon Whitney-Deal manages the Greenfield Farmers Market.
“We were once the main market that everybody came to,” Whitney-Deal says. “All the hill town folk came, because this was it!”
Now, many surrounding towns have their own market: some on the same day as Greenfield; such as Ashfield and Charlemont. Not only were there fewer markets four decades ago, but less variety for sale.
“It was just your tomatoes, and your cucumbers and fruit,” Whitney-Deal recalls.
A personal connection
Today in Greenfield, there’s music, artisans, cheese, meat and maple syrup.
Customers not only seek out food, but relationships with farmers – like Rich Pascale from Colrain, who’s selling heirloom tomato plants.
“They’re big, they’re late. And they crack and split,” Pascale tells customer Eddie Evans. “But once you put them in your mouth, you’ll be very happy.”
“Okay. That’s a good sales pitch,” says Evans, a civil engineer from Greenfield, who says he’s drawn to this market every Saturday.
“It’s really a good thing in a human kind of a way,” Evans says. “You know, it takes it out of the grocery stores and you hand your money to the guy who grew the stuff you’re buying.”
Supply growing faster than demand
While shopping for veggies, farmers market customers also patronize local businesses. So many towns want markets.
Jeff Cole is the executive director of the non-profit Mass. Farmers Markets. He says in the past decade, Massachusetts went from 100 summer markets to more than 250.
“We haven’t seen the same percentage growth in the number of people shopping at farmers markets,” Cole says. “We have seen a total increase of the number of people shopping at farmers markets a very significant amount, but not 150 percent increase.”
In western Massachusetts, some farmers say when there were fewer markets there was a good-sized customer base. But now more markets are competing with each other.
“It’s important that we continue to build the stronger markets,” says David Paysnick, farm manager of the Greenfield Community Farm.
Paysnick says that’s because it’s expensive for farmers to attend many markets.
“Between the staffing, the transportation, getting everything loaded and prepared and unloaded,” he says. “And it’s a lot of work and it’s better for us if we can do more sales at fewer markets than having to attend more markets to get the same number of sales.”
Caroline Pam from the Kitchen Garden in Sunderland sells at five markets a week.
“When people ask me about starting new markets, I encourage them to think very seriously about whether there’s actually a need for another market,” Pam says.
More than fruits and veggies
Six years ago Oona Coy and her husband started Northampton’s Tuesday market. The couple had just started farming, couldn’t secure a spot at an established market and envisioned one with a festive atmosphere. But there was already one in Northampton.
“We feel like it’s our obligation, as a new market to find new customers and to not scavenge customers from other markets and so we have been strategic about that,” Coy says.
As part of that strategy, Coy’s market reaches out through a weekly newsletter, Facebook, and a rewards program. Customers earn points they can redeem for a $5 token or gifts.
Like some other markets, this one raises funds to double the value of food stamps, bringing in new customers. Nadine Mathews from Huntington brings her two sons here.
“It’s the one that I found to be most friendly and they do the food stamp program which is wonderful,” Matthews says.
Small markets not exactly a cash crop
Matthews is buying tomato plants from Tevis Robertson-Goldberg of Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield.
“Its yellow and it’s got a slightly fuzzy skin with a slight blush on the end, so it looks almost like a peach,” describes Robertson-Goldberg.
Besides Northampton, he has also sold in small town markets, which he says residents love, but it doesn’t always work for farmers.
“You need to have enough vendors bringing enough products to attract the customers and it needs to be worth the farmers while to bring things to market,” he says. “And a smaller market, it’s a lot trickier to hit that balance.”
Robertson-Goldberg says that was the challenge at the market in Williamsburg, which closed this year. But there are many small markets that continue.
Ervin Meluleni of Coyote Hill Farm is selling baskets of plump strawberries at the Saturday market in Bernardston. On this morning, at times there are more vendors than customers.
“Are there enough people?” I ask. “Barely!” he says. “This is a very small market. It would be great if more people came!”
Meluleni says shoppers have many ways to buy local food now, including Community Supported Agriculture farms – or CSAs – where people commit to buying a share of the harvest.
“I think it’s the same people who join up with then CSA that used to go to markets,” Meluleni says.
Oona Coy from the Northampton Tuesday market says the problem will solve itself; that the market will take care of the markets.
“But I understand the impetus that communities have to create farmers markets, because it’s not just about purchasing food, it’s about creating community,” Coy says.
The challenge is keeping it viable for farmers who aren’t just creating community, but earning a living.