Vermont at top of the list for local food

Farmers’ markets help citizens eat a disproportionate abundance and provide an economic engine for the agricultural sector

BRATTLEBORO — Strolling of the Heifers (SotH), the Vermont-based local food advocacy group that produces the annual namesake parade, recently released a study that ranks Vermont as the state most committed to local foods.

In the study, SotH gathered information from a variety of sources, including census data, three different databases from the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture, and monthly lists of farmers' markets in the United States to compile a “Locavore Index,” ranking each state in order of its commitment to locally grown and -produced foods.

The number of farmers' markets in Vermont was, in large part, responsible for making the Green Mountain State the “eat local” state.

Other criteria included CSAs (community-supported agriculture or “farm subscriptions”), farm-to-school programs, and food hubs, which, according to SotH's study, “are facilities that handle the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of foods from a group of farms and food producers in a region.”)

Even though Vermont has the second-smallest population of any state in the Union, it has the most farmers' markets per capita, with one for every 6,394 of its residents.

In contrast, California, the nation's most populated state, only shows one farmers' market for every 50,637 of its residents.

Vermont's farmers' markets sell a diverse array of goods grown and produced in the state. At the various markets throughout the state, one might find, along with fresh fruits and vegetables, other agricultural products, such as fresh milk, eggs, cheese, meats, wine, maple products, houseplants, and processed foods such as jams and sauces.

Some vendors use ingredients grown out of state but produced here in Vermont, such as coffee or tea. The beans or leaves might grow elsewhere, but they are roasted or blended within the state's borders.

Neil Harley, for example, who sells his blend of organic chai, a spiced tea drink, under the name Chai Wallah, sources the components of his product from all over the world, but he blends and packages it in Guilford.

Many farmers' markets have booths selling prepared foods offering a variety of cuisines - wood-fired pizza, Thai, Indian, barbecue, baked goods, and others - that use components from around the world but are prepared locally.

One might also find handmade items such as wooden cutting boards, soaps, and clothing made of wool or woven fabrics.

An economic powerhouse

According to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) 2012 survey of Vermont farmers' markets: the 41 markets completing the survey reported a combined gross sales amount of $8,309,040.32, up from $5,340,396.13 reported in 2011 from 54 markets.

For growers and producers, a farmers' market is a viable alternative to selling directly to a retail store or through a distributor, where a percentage of the sales is kept by the middleman.

Bigan Fard, of Williamsville, says that although two Brattleboro stores carry his One World Soaps, selling at farmers' markets works for him because the profit margin from selling in the shops is “not high.”

Read Miller, of East Dummerston's Dwight Miller Orchards, describes selling at farmers' markets as an example of good business sense, as it allows him to “not put all of my eggs in one basket.”

The keys to success, he says, are market diversity, “regular cash,” and offering value-added products. While Dwight Miller Orchards sells its apples in stores and stands in New Jersey, Maine, and nearly every state in between, Read's wife, Malah Miller, says it would take “a major catastrophe” for the farm not to sell at the Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market every week.

Read described the payment arrangements of the various outlets selling his orchard's products: some vendors pay weekly, others pay monthly. But at a farmers' market, money is collected daily, and it goes directly to the producer.

“The market is worth promoting,” he said, “because it is the community. All the dollars are here and they stay here. It's our identity.”

Farmers' markets offer a solution to the vagaries of modern-day capitalism and impersonal, bureaucratic rules can displace traditions of humanity and community.

One illustration of this concept - bartering - is rare in grocery stores but a common practice at farmers' markets for vendors to share their highly perishable, unsold goods with one another.

Fard trades his handmade soaps for food, saying the farmers at his markets “feed me all through the summer.”

A recent mushrooming

According to the Vermont Farmers' Market Association's (VTFMA) Website, 19 farmers' markets served the state in 1986. Now, Windham County has farmers' markets in Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Londonderry, Putneym and Townshend, covering nearly all corners of the county.

Brattleboro has three farmers' markets: two organized by the Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market, which operates outdoors from May to October on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and the indoor Winter Farmers' Market, open Saturdays from November to March.

The Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market is one of the largest - with more than 50 vendors - and the most popular in Windham County. The year it began is vague. Read Miller, whose father, Dwight Miller Jr., was one of the founders of the market, recalls going to the market “before I had my drivers' license.”

Kate Dodge of Putney Mountain Winery, says the market is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. She and her husband, Charles, sell their locally made fruit wines at three shops and at “the big three [in the region]: here, Rutland, and Dorset.”

Dodge describes one of the joys of selling at the farmers' markets: being able to tell a customer exactly where the fruit is grown. “The rhubarb comes from those folks,” Dodge said, pointing to a farmer at a neighboring stall.

Michael Fuller, owner and chef at Brattleboro's T.J. Buckley's Uptown Dining, has been coming to Brattleboro's Wednesday and Saturday markets for approximately 30 years.

Fuller shops for his restaurant, often arriving at 8:30 a.m., when many vendors are still setting up. When a bystander asked him why he bothers getting up so early to shop at the farmers' market rather than getting all of his restaurant's ingredients from a distributor who will deliver the goods directly to his door, Fuller responded: “I like these people. They're my friends.”

“Community,” “friendship,” and “relationships” were three words used in nearly every answer given by farmers' market customers and vendors when asked why they shop or sell there. “Direct marketing” was another term used by both groups.

The Schaal sisters, Rachel and Alex, of Parish Hill Creamery (a new cheesemaking outfit in Westminster West, which they operate with Rachel's husband, Peter Dixon) said selling at farmers' markets is about “fun, local foods, and community.”

“I get to see my neighbors here!” said Alex.

Rachel loves the face-to-face contact and immediate feedback from customers.

“It's exciting to taste the cheese with people ... to see the look on their face,” she said. Parish Hill Creamery sells its cheese at a few farmers' markets, including Lebanon, N.H., Putney, and the Saturday Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market. Rachel said that selling at farmers' markets was “a part of our business plan from the beginning.”

Lisa Kuneman and Chris Zappala of Brattleboro are regulars at the Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market. Kuneman described the market as their “Saturday morning coffee klatch.” Zappala continued, “It's where we'll see people.”

Customers also cited freshness and quality as other benefits of shopping at farmers' markets. Zappala said, “You can get lettuce at the store, but lettuce at the farmers' market is fresh, it's just picked, and you can talk to the guy who picked it.”

He said that with Brattleboro having a winter market, it offered him the opportunity to shop locally year-round.

“When I do get vegetables at the store, I have to look for them because I don't usually buy them there,” says Zappala, who describes searching the store, wondering to himself “Where are the leafy greens?”

Jenifer Morier, a Guilford-based potter, and Neil Harley share a booth at the Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market. They are not only vendors but customers of farmers' markets, because farmers' markets have a variety of enjoyable elements beyond the wares offered there.

“Kids, tourists, natives, music...” said Morier. “It reminds me of why I like Vermont so much.”

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