Farmers' Market cultivates a sense of community
BRATTLEBORO -- It's Saturday morning, and the line of parked cars stretches for several blocks down Route 9 west of town. There's a good reason for this. The Brattleboro Farmers' Market sets up on a grassy field here every Saturday from May through October, and on Wednesdays from June until mid-October. Roughly 55 vendors regularly participate on Saturday (about 10 on Wednesday) and the convivial atmosphere is akin to a small-town country fair.
Today is early in the season, so produce is limited to items like salad greens, set beside perennials, herbs, and other plants. Ann Works from Peaked Mountain Farm is slicing chunks from a wheel of half-cow, half-sheep Ewe Jersey cheese. Cathi Wilken from The Sheep Farm is tending several lambskin rugs and taking orders for chops, loin, and other cuts of her pasture-raised lambs. Bakers are displaying bread and desserts; beekeepers offer their honey, gardeners their bouquets of fresh flowers.
About a third of the booths feature jewelers, potters, and other local craftspeople. At a booth for Fantasy Wear, a girl with pigtails tries on a pink-and-gold-fabric crown and twirls around in a turquoise cape with polka dots and hot pink lining. Jill Green, who has been selling her handmade designs here for five years, learned her craft early: Her mother was a seamstress and her father owned a sewing factory. "Can I buy it?" asks a small girl, touching a hooded, midnight-blue velvet cloak shot with tiny silver stars. "Maybe for your birthday," her mother replies.
At the next booth, the sign reads, "Dispositions adjusted." Two women seated on chairs lean forward with their faces pressed into cervical pillows, as men standing over them massage their shoulders. "People bring their aches and pains to the Farmers' Market," Ron Minnes says between clients. "Theoretically we do a 10-minute massage here for $10, but I don't think anybody gets under 20 minutes."
Overall, it's an eclectic offering, united by what David Schoales, the market's manager, calls its informal motto: "Homemade, homegrown, and hand crafted. It has to be produced by the person selling it."
What also unites the vendors is their uniform excellence. "Vendors are all juried, so it's very high quality," Schoales explains. "People apply in the spring and a committee samples and evaluates the products."
The Wednesday market is slightly smaller than the Saturday affair, though the vendors meet the same quality standards.
But quality is only one reason people come here. Another is the live music each market day from a seemingly endless supply of local musicians. "It's colorful, it's cheerful, and there's a great spirit," Schoales says.
Many, like Aida Avery, who moved here 14 years ago from Mexico City, make the market a part of their weekly routine.
"In a way it's similar to Mexico," she says. "I like to say hi to people I know. And I like to buy food from organic farmers and support the community. There's always something different when you come -- music, or activities for the kids."
Avery says she brought up her children coming weekly to the Farmers' Market, and it's obvious that's a tradition for many people. The vendors ring the field, and in the middle is a large sandbox with youngsters climbing in and out. Sprout, a local store, donated the toys in the sandbox, as well as the child-size picnic tables nearby.
"People know they can bring their kids and stay awhile," says Schoales. "Some people just come for lunch."
Among the vendors are those making fresh-squeezed lemonade, home-baked desserts, and several local restaurants. There's a nonstop line in front of Anon's Thai Cuisine.
The smiling man taking orders at the counter says Anon's has been at the market for about 20 years. "There were only four or five tables here when we started."
"Oh no," he shakes his head when yet another person addresses him as Anon. "People think I am Anon because here I am." He motions to the woman working in back. "Anon, that's my wife. I am Bouala."
"Order the jasmine rice with the mango," says Leslie Staudinger, who's near the front of the line. "We get it 90 percent of the time." But it's near the end of the market day, and the jasmine rice is gone. Bouala offers free pot stickers as consolation, and Staudinger and her companion Gary Sachs carry them off with several sticks of grilled chicken satay.
It's a good time, and good business as well. Twenty years ago, the entire market might have made $10,000 for the season. This year, Schoales says, vendors took a total of more than $30,000 during the first two weeks.
But the vendors' ambitions extend beyond personal profits, to helping the community at large. It's a pleasure to buy cheese that comes from local cows, but a lot of people can't afford the premium prices such products often demand. Schoales says the market is working with other organizations "to move us into an area we've talked about over the years, which is how to draw more lower-income people into the market." A farm-to-family program provides coupons to lower-income residents that they can use to buy products, and plans are underway to get a wireless connection so the market's vendors can accept food stamps.
"We also have two churches that get produce donated at the end of the market day for community dinners," adds Schoales. "As I think about all these aspects, it makes it clear to me why the market's so well regarded in the community."
Brattleboro Farmers' Market
Route 9 West, 2 miles west of downtown near the Creamery covered bridge, outside the Brattleboro Food Co-op. 802-254-8885, brattleborofarmersmarket .com. Saturdays 9 a.m.-2 p.m., May 5-Oct. 27 and Wednesdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m. June 6-Oct. 17.
Kathy Shorr can be reached at email@example.com.