MANCHESTER -- "Veggies."
That's the short, simple one-word answer Manchester resident Artie Short gives when asked what brings him out nearly every Thursday afternoon to shop at the Manchester Farmers Market, as well as to the Clearbrook Farm stand in Shaftsbury.
At least, until his own start growing in his backyard, he adds.
"I like the idea of knowing the people," he said, referring to the vendors, producers and other regular customers he bumps into on his excursions. Today he's shopping for arugula and beets (the first available this season, he said) as well as the broccoli.
One of the main reasons people like to shop locally is because they like to ask the people they are buying their food from about what's in it, said Krysta Piccoli, the manager of the Manchester Farmers Market.
After all, you don't need a GMO label if you can go right to the source.
"They want to know it came from somewhere local. They want to know what went into it and how safe it is," she said. "It's also nice to buy from your friends. It's definitely a social experience."
For Karen Trubitt of True Love Farm in North Bennington, the farmers market is a social experience also. She and her husband, Steven, farm four acres out of a 30-acre piece of property about 20 miles south of Manchester and set up their shingle at the Bennington Farmers Market on Saturdays as well as the Dorset Farmers Market on Sunday. Prepping for each market - getting the inventory ready and harvesting fresh vegetables for sale for each one - doesn't leave a ton of down time for them. So when they are at one of the markets, selling their produce, talking with the customers, it's a break from the heavy behind-the-scenes lifting required to have their booths stocked and ready, she said.
"We think of it as the heart of our social life," she said with a laugh. "We are very intensely focused on growing vegetables from sunup to sundown, so going to the farmers market can be our fun time."
Plus there's all the feedback to be absorbed and processed, she said. The conversation with the customers helps guide their planting decisions and gives them a better sense about what customers want
True Love Farm is one of about 25 vendors signed up for spaces around Manchester's triangular Adams Park, where the farmers market hangs its hat on Thursday afternoons between 3 and 6 p.m. The Trubitts have been selling here for the past 10 years as the market has inhabited three different locations. They mainly sell salad greens, heirloom tomatoes, blueberries and ginger in season. They grow produce year-round, she said.
Several local farmers also run community supported agriculture, or CSA, programs, where customers pre-pay for vegetables or other products in advance and then come in to pick up an agreed upon amount each week during the season. CSA programs can be structured in several ways. The Trubitts use the farmers markets to connect the customers taking part in their CSA program with their food they've pre-ordered. It's not broken down by a weekly set amount, and customers can acquire what they want when they want it, she said.
"People pre-buy vouchers during the winter, and they spend those voucher dollars at the farmers markets through the summer," she said. "We call it a ‘freestyle' CSA. It helps us with cash flow during the planting season and when we're buying our equipment and seeds and things. It helps us get the farm off the ground, or in the ground, literally, come spring."
With about 80 farmers markets across the state, Vermont has one of the highest number of farmers markets in the nation per capita. A state legislative policy adopted in 2009, known as the "Farm to Plate" plan, hopes to see a doubling of the statewide consumption of locally grown food, and in many cases organically grown as well, from 5 percent of the state's population to 10 percent by 2020. And while the number of markets has grown in recent years, Heather Thomas, the manager of the Dorset Farmers Market, thinks there is still plenty of room for more growth.
"I think there's a lot of room for expansion.... what would help support that growth is people actively shopping for their food at local farmers markets," she said.
In other words, getting from 5 to 10 percent of market share means attracting more customers, not just those already hooked on fresh local produce as a major piece of their diet.
The Dorset Farmers Market has 52 vendors taking part in it, and runs year-round. During the summer and early fall it's outdoors next to the H.N. Williams General Store on Route 30; in mid-October it moves indoors to the J.K. Adams kitchenware and home furnishing store a short distance away and remains there over the winter until mid-May, Thomas said.
And with 52 vendors, it's waiting list time for those who want to sell there, she added, although there are separate registration opportunities for the summer and winter markets.
"The farmers market is a place to bring the community together; people like to eat local food and they certainly want to know who's growing it," she said. "I think they also like to support our local economy."