Shari Wilkinson has a background in fashion. So, in 2008, when she announced her plan to develop a farmers’ market in Newburyport, those who knew her had a few chuckles. (Given the market’s success, it’s she who should be laughing now!) After eight consecutive seasons—and six winter markets—Wilkinson has gained insight into the greater good that comes out of supporting local farmers and vendors.
“The essential piece of it is really understanding where your food comes from,” says the founder/manager. “So many foods come from all corners of the world; it’s really hard to have an understanding of how it was grown and packaged and handled.” For Wilkinson, there is “confidence” in what you are eating when it comes from a farmers’ market—being able to ask about how it was grown or, in the case of prepared foods, the ingredients and methods for making products.
Another benefit of market shopping is its environmental impact—or lack thereof. “The carbon footprint of transporting food is huge,” notes Wilkinson. According to the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), food in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles to get to our plates. That requires huge volumes of fossil fuels and other natural resources. To shop at a local market is to help reduce the carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions associated with transported goods.
“Packaging is another savings,” notes Wilkinson, adding that most items at farmers’ markets come with little to no packaging. And less packaging means less waste and pollution.
She also speaks of “diversified farming,” which includes crop rotation and the use of cover crops, both of which help increase soil fertility and reduce soil erosion, so the need to rely on fertilizers is diminished or eradicated altogether. Again, that’s good for the health of our natural environment—both the local ecosystem and the planet.
Equally valuable is the sense of community her market evokes. “Week after week,” she says, “people spend all morning gathering in community at the market. I think that is so important. It really makes my heart happy. I never would’ve thought it would be such a hub.”
But a hub it is—one that thrums with live music, neighborly communion, and a bonanza of artisan goods and fresh, wholesome foods.
Newburyport Farmers’ Market
Starts: May 7. Sundays, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Ends: November 22
Location: Tannery Shopping Center, 50 Water St.
Estelle Rand, Beverly Farmers’ Market director, envisions a turning point at which communities begin to see farmers’ markets as essential to their local economy rather than supplemental. Rand believes markets are also instrumental in “setting new goals for our food system” and vital for people who don’t have access to fresh food otherwise. “I think it’s great to help people understand that the farmers’ market can be a bigger part of our food system—the system that’s already in place—just by pointing out all of the things that you can buy at the market. I’m hoping for and working toward that kind of mind shift,” she says.
To demonstrate the value of the Beverly market, she uses a section of her newsletter to juxtapose photos of store-bought and farm-fresh produce. She provides information about the source of, say, a bunch of Stop & Shop grapes and a bunch picked next door in Lincoln, Massachusetts, noting the difference in transportation mileage.
Recognizing cost as a commonly cited concern among non-marketgoers, Rand conducts comparison studies. “I look honestly at the price differences,” she says. “Sometimes there’s none. Sometimes the farmers’ market is less expensive. Sometimes the grocery store is going to be the less expensive option. Starting by being honest about those numbers is a good thing. It’s also important to place [value] on the fact that buying eggs from the farmers’ market means that you’re preserving land in your fairly immediate area as farmland.” For her, like many market shoppers, there are trade-offs. She wants more people to see those connections.
Another—perhaps less commonly discussed—value associated with farmers’ markets is the opportunity they provide for farming entrepreneurs to test their products. “They can basically go into business without the pressure of brick and mortar and get immediate feedback from their customers,” notes Rand. “That’s a very valuable thing for people starting up a new business. I’ve seen people really be able to grow and create their brand at a farmers’ market.”
Distinguishing the Beverly market are its partnerships with the Farmers Market Coalition and Women in Action, which enable the market to provide a matching program for anyone using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamp benefits. “I’m always trying to get the word out about that,” says Rand. “We are really leveling the price point for anyone who is using food stamps. We are empowering and expanding their buying power at the market.”
Beverly Farmers’ Market
Starts: June 13. Mondays, 3 p.m. – 7 p.m.
Ends: In October
Location: Veteran’s Memorial Park, Railroad Ave. and Rantoul St.
Niki Bogin, executive director of the Cape Ann Farmers’ Market, notes that its nonprofit model is unique. “We are a community organization with the mission of being a source of healthy food for members of the Cape Ann community, regardless of income,” she explains, adding that great effort has been made to ensure vendors take SNAP and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) payments; they also fund their own senior citizens’ coupon program.
Having visited several markets up through Maine and Nova Scotia, Bogin feels most are facing a similar struggle. While there was a real push for the development of farmers’ markets about 10 years ago, it has leveled off. “Now we need to find a way to reach the rest of the community who may not understand why shopping at the farmers’ market is so important,” she says.
Among Bogin’s rallying cries is the value farmers’ markets add to their community. The Cape Ann market is especially effective in bringing people together. For 20 weeks each year, it features all of the expected artisanal wares and fare, as well as two or three education tents for local nonprofits to come and talk about what they do. Examples include The Open Door Food Pantry, Pathways for Children, Essex County Greenbelt, The Trustees of Reservations, Gloucester Stage, and the Gloucester Writers Center, among many others. There are also cooking demonstrations and special events such as the annual Seafood Throwdown between the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives and The National Agri-Marketing Association to showcase underutilized fish.
Bogin sums up the value of farmers’ markets by saying: “The food tastes better, it’s better for the economy, it’s better for the community, and it allows people to directly interact with those who are growing and making their food, which makes for a great learning experience.”
In addition to supplying people with flavorful, high-quality, nutrient-dense foods and handcrafted goods, farmers’ markets are a means to multiple ends. Supporting them conserves natural resources, builds community, fuels the local economy, opens doors for new farmers/artisans, and bolsters a more sustainable food system. In short, to shop at a farmers’ market is to contribute to the greater good. As Bogin says, “One good deed spirals into many.”
Cape Ann Farmers’ Market
Starts: June 1. Thursdays, 3 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Ends: October 12
Location: Stage Fort Park, 24 Hough Ave., Gloucester