The Market Pulse
Farmers Markets are at the heart of our Berkshire Community
Photographs by Megan Haley
It is dusk on Friday, and the parking lot at 18 Church Street is shifting between business day and date night. There are cars here and there, a crew of bees humming in the garden, a couple heading toward the shortcut to Main Street. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the explosion of activity that will transform this space in the morning. The only clue is a banner staked in the grass that reads: Home of the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market.
Between now and tomorrow, 34 vendors and two managers will bring the market to fruition. It might seem like magic as the opening bell rings on Saturday morning, but it’s work that makes it happen. All around the county and beyond, farmers and food producers are picking, washing, baking, brewing, packaging, and loading everything from lettuce to goat cheese to coffee to baguettes. For most vendors, preparation goes back to winter with a complex plan for how much product will be needed for each market. And for all that hard work, there’s beauty in the moment the market comes together. Trucks descend, a fleet of tents rise up, and in an hour’s time, a parking lot becomes the best destination in town.
I learned to love vegetables at the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market. I spent almost a decade selling vegetables for Indian Line Farm, one of the market’s longest standing vendors, before I managed the market for a year. Working at the market taught me how to chop radishes into butter, slice kohlrabi into fries, and to recognize the immense work that went into every vegetable in my kitchen. Of course, there is the growing, but selling at a market is an exact science. Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm lives by her 25 years of records: “What to harvest is determined from records kept on years past and specific days of the summer. Those records are critical to us.”
Debbie Barber, who, along with her husband, Tom Decker, runs Double Decker Farm in Hillsdale, explains a frequent gap in customer perception. “Often people show up ten minutes before the market ends, upset that we’re nearly out of plants or vegetables. It requires a change in thinking to understand that an empty table at the end of the market is a good thing.”
Indeed it is. Because when the farmer succeeds, the community reaps the benefits.
The Great Barrington Farmers’ Market began in 1990 with a few vendors. A group of restaurateurs and food lovers had put the word out the previous year: Farmers wanted for a market. The goal was to bring action back to a wilting Main Street, and to revitalize a once-vibrant Berkshire agricultural scene that had all but faded away. Barber and Decker answered the call, nervous about being newbies among more seasoned farmers.
Barber told me the story at a recent market, surrounded by her now-famous red and pink begonias: “There just weren’t that many people farming. But then the market itself inspired people to start farming because it showed them it was possible. What started as a few vendors became ten, then 15, and then 20.”
These days, anyone can tour the Berkshires by way of its market tables. From the bustling Monterey market on Tuesdays to the Berkshire Mall lot on Wednesdays, from the West Stockbridge village green and vibrant Dalton pop-up on Thursdays to the church parking lots in Sheffield and Lenox on Fridays. Finish up with the anchor markets in Great Barrington, Pittsfield, Williamstown, and North Adams on Saturdays, and you’ve eaten your way through the county.
Each market has its own flavor and community, reflective of the town that hosts it. Amelia Conklin, a meat farmer who runs Sky View Farm with her husband, Will, spoke to me at the Sheffield market, her hand resting on her pregnant belly: “This is our community—we both grew up here in Sheffield. As long as there are vendors and customers, we’ll be here, too. After the winter, the first market makes me feel like a flower emerging from the soil. Answering questions, connecting with customers and other vendors—I really love being here.”
Farmers markets are essential access points, ensuring healthy food for residents and visitors of all incomes and backgrounds. In the last several years, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) business has skyrocketed, and many Berkshire markets have funded the doubling of SNAP dollars for market customers through private and public partnerships. Bridgette Stone (photo right) is assistant manager at the Great Barrington market, which did over $18,000 in SNAP sales in 2017.
“Both our SNAP and community sponsors are always shocked when we tell them about the impact of their giving. There are so many people on the economic edge. Our community is more diverse than people assume, and the nutrition-assistance programs make a difference.” The market provides an opportunity to support our most vulnerable residents, and the more we commit to that process, the stronger our community grows. It’s a win-win. “Food is intrinsically linked to human dignity,” Stone continues. “As healthy and beautiful food finds its way onto more tables, the money used to purchase it goes back to farmers and small business owners working and living in our community.”
On this overcast day in June, the Great Barrington market is bustling right from the start. Live music sets the tone as customers pour in, and it really does feel like everyone is here. I pick up vegetables from Markristo and MX Morningstar, meat from North Plain Farm, cheese from Grace Hill. From there, I head to Off the Shelf Eggs, the new creation of Anna Houston and Rob Perazzo, who both got their start working for North Plain Farm. I’ve heard rumors of their breakfast sandwiches, and I’m eager to try one. Sandwich in hand, I brave the Six Depot coffee line before grabbing a seat under a tent to watch the market buzz around me.
The sandwich is perfect—a runny, fried egg with a bright-orange yolk layered with sharp melted cheese, arugula, and some sort of homemade onion jam on a butter-grilled bun. I stop by the stand to express my appreciation and ask Houston how her first season is going. She gives me a wide smile: “It’s been great so far, so we’ll see.”