Hills growing more and more farmers markets


For a perfect dinner on a summer evening, what is better than a meal made with local products you purchased earlier in the day at your local farmers market?

While it takes planning to get the food to the market, then to the table, farmers markets are in good supply in Berkshire County, and the growing season is just beginning.

Buying local food is a proven way to support local farmers -- and the people who solve the logistics of getting that local food to kitchens and picnic baskets say it benefits everyone involved. Farmers and eaters can support each other.

As interest in farmers markets increases, so do the numbers of markets, the number of farmers at a market and the number of kinds of tomatoes, cheeses, greens, kinds of local honey and samples of local berries (fresh and baked).

Nationally, farmers markets are on the upswing. As of August 2012, the USDA's national farmers market directory counted 7,864 markets across the country, a 9.6 percent increase from 2011.

They are growing in the Berk shires too. Barbara Zheut lin, director of Berk shire Grown, said Berkshire markets have definitely increased over the last decade. Brent Wasser, the Sustainable Food and Agri culture Program manager at Williams College's Zilkha Cen ter for Environmental In it iatives, agrees.

"I think the mentality is new," he said. "People really want to know where their food is produced and want a connection to that farmer. That's a fairly recent development."

However, "there are some big socioeconomic disparities," in Berkshire County, Wasser said. "Not every community is equally engaged."

The county's newest market is also in its biggest city. The Pittsfield Farmers Market will open on May 11 and will continue on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Oct. 26. It's on First Street, across from the Common.

Jess Conzo, the director of Alchemy Initiatives, which is managing the market, said about 20 food vendors and about 15 artisans will come to the new market, all from within 100 miles of Pittsfield. She said the market will also have fresh flowers and hanging baskets on opening day, for Mothers Day weekend.

Alchemy sought applications from prospective vendors as they planned the market, beginning in January.

"Once we made the official announcement, applications have been flooding my inbox," Conzo said.

Even small markets take a lot of planning, and farmers have to weigh whether setting up shop at one will be worth their while.

"More established markets with larger numbers of customers are going to benefit vendors," Zheutlin said.

A market with lots of food choices will likely bring in more customers, but diversity of produce depends on the season and the weather. Wasser, who used to sell cheese at farmers markets, said turnout is "unreliable" -- a sunny day usually means greater attendance.

"I had days where it was really just not worth it going," he said.

"With all of these markets, you start to develop some real competition," he added. "It's not like ‘if you build it, they will come.' It's not always that way."

Ensuring people come "is a hard thing, no matter what kind of event you're planning," Conzo agreed.

A market in Pittsfield, with a population of 44,000, "is a real opportunity to engage a big population," Wasser said. "It's so critical to get this healthy, vibrant produce into urban centers, and get it to populations that may not always have access to this quality of food."

He said the best thing a market can do if it wants to be successful is to market itself.

"That's the role of market managers. Promote your market -- generate the demand -- keep farmers and customers coming!"

Wasser cited the success of North County markets, in cluding the Williamstown Hol iday Farmers Market, which Williams and Berkshire Grown run together.

"The attendance at those markets has been steadily increasing since they began," along with vendor interest, he said. There's really, I think, an opportunity right now to see locally-grown food expand and become much more popular."

"This is the only farmers market in Pittsfield right now, and we've been getting a lot of positive feedback," Conzo said.

She's working on marketing, as well as market coupons for senior citizens and allowing those with SNAP benefits to use them at the market.

Even though participation in the Pittsfield market required vendors to submit applications, not everyone has signed up for every Saturday of its season.

"Some people are hesitant to jump on board and some are willing to take that risk, but I definitely think it has a potential to grow," Conzo said. "We're working really hard to ensure our farmers, our food products and our artisans are very successful."


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