Farmers markets find hybrid models fertile

In Pittsfield on a September day, you might have heard Yo-yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax give a pop-up concert, as volunteers prepared orders of new potatoes or ginger and honey for a fleet of volunteer drivers will to deliver through the city and into Dalton, Lenox, Lanesborough and Richmond.

Across the Berkshires, farmers markets are adapting to a new world and finding new ways to bring fresh food to the community, despite the pandemic.

With their team of volunteers, Roots Rising and the Pittsfield Farmers Market are delivering to more than 200 families countywide each week, and as of August 31 they have given away $50,000 in free food this summer, as they give discounts to at least 100 low-income shoppers each week and buy food from their farmers to donate to a local food pantry.

Co-directors Jess Vecchia and Jamie Samowitz were the first in the Berkshires to create a virtual marketplace, and they have seen it grow quickly.

Within a few days of the state order suspending gatherings like their outdoor market, Vecchia and Samowitz secured a $25,000 grant from the Berkshire United Way emergency response fund to keep their market going

“We have farmers who depend on it,” Samowitz says.

In the spring, farmers were trying to prepare for the summer. They were sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings, ordering chicks, delivering lambs and calves and piglets.

Sarah Lipinski at Sweetbrook Farm in Williamstown talked with farmers around her as the quarantine set in. Colleges and restaurants and inns were closing, catering on hold, weddings and events postponed,“I talked to one farmer who said he wasn’t planting,” she says, “because his market is wholesale.” 

He was not sure he had a market to plant for. But the day she talked with him he planted spinach and radishes for the Williamstown Farmers Market. She coordinated the Williamstown market’s move to a virtual website, she said, to help farmers and people who want local food to find each other.

A volunteer with Roots Rising prepares fresh carrots for the Pittsfield Farmers Market. Press photo courtesy of Roots Rising
Roots Rising

A volunteer prepares fresh carrots for the Pittsfield Farmers Market.

In North Adams, Director of community events Suzy Helme has taken up the charge. On Saturday mornings at the Armory in North Adams, you can pick up fresh eggs or a baguette with soft cheese and honey. 

The North Adams market started in April with about 70 families — and with a $10,000 grant from Berkshire United Way to offer market match funds for families with EBT benefits. Helme has been coming to those families to make the transactions in person. Their orders have also risen quickly.

She is working with her own team of volunteers, gathering food, sorting out orders and driving the delivery rounds. HiLo North Adams has donated its space and walk-in fridge for storage. On Thursdays, when the week’s orders are in, she and her team pick up food from the farms and pack it to distribute on Saturday.

In Williamstown, Lipinski is following the same weekly rhythm. She has created an online market, opening  on Monday mornings with all the farms have available. 

Families can order online Monday to Wednesday, and volunteers and farmers will put the orders together for pickup outside the Williams Elementary School on Saturday mornings, and they will deliver locally to people who cannot leave home.

Lipinski brings her own maple syrup from Sweetbrook Farm, and she is coordinating with most of the market’s regular farmers and food producers, and at least three new ones.

People will find microgreens from Berkshire Worms, she says, and vegetables and baked goods from Lion’s Tooth Farm, Asian greens, lamb, pork and beef, sourdough bread and 30 kinds of cheese …

People can even bring home dinner ready-made. Cindy Nikitas at Cindy’s Cooking Greek is bringing meals ready to heat (refrigerated or frozen), as the Polish Roadside Grill has offered golabki (stuffed cabbage) and homemade soups at North Adams farmers market.

“There’s such a huge demand,” Lipinski says. People want to support local farms, and to feel confident about the places and people who make their food. Going to a supermarket can feel more complicated and less safe. And as some food supplies have become more limited across the country, people feel the importance of having a local supply. 

“You can’t buy vegetables for a month at a time,” she said. The market ensures people have access to food, and it protects farmers at the same time.

In Great Barrington and West Stockbridge and Lenox, farmers markets have returned as carefully redesigned physical markets. 

With physical careful distancing, they set up booths and one-way paths for visitors wearing masks, a few at a time. The Great Barrington market has also been working with local farms, the Peoples Pantry, Berkshire Grown and Project Backpack to get healthy food into the community, says market co-manager Bridgette Stone.

Outside the Foundry in West Stockbridge, the weekly market opens on Thursday afternoons with goat cheese, biscotti, honey and more … and a few steps away people can find takeout pizza, barbecue from SOMA Catering, pastries at the Tap House and sandwiches at Public Market, and the flavors of No. 6 Depot coffee and Baldwin’s vanilla.

In Williamstown, Lipinski has enjoyed putting an online marketplace together.

She has the experience to coordinate it, she says. She has a day job as finance coordinator at Children of the Berkshires in North Adams. And because the sugaring season comes in late winter and early spring, she has the time.

For many farmers, this is a deeply busy season, she says. She enjoys working with them and getting to know many of them better, and helping the people around her.

“I’m glad to do it,” she says. “Last year, when our barn caught fire at Sweetbrook, we had so much community support to pull off the maple season. We ran a goFundMe campaign and it worked well. This is a thank you to the town and the community for doing that for us. And I’m having so much fun.”

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