Lee opens farmers market


LEE -- Organizers of the Lee Farmers Market spent four months lining up local food producers, getting the necessary town permits and deciding on Thursdays for the weekly outdoor event.

A successful debut on June 5 rested on what they couldn't control -- the weather.

By noontime that day, the steady morning rain had stopped. Two hours later, nature provided ample sunshine for the eight vendors set up on the lawn of the First Congregational Church park from 2 to 6 p.m.

"The weather gods were with us [that day] -- perfect timing," said Valerie Bluhm of the organizing committee.

Sunny weather, along with a variety of vendors, live music and the downtown location resulted in the inaugural Lee Farmers Market doing brisk business.

"[The market] gives us a sense of rapport with the customers as we get to meet people in the community," said Auron Stark, owner of Sacred Shire in Lee. A Dalton native, he produces 100-percent botanical bath and skin care products.

Lee's market joins 16 weekly farmers markets held this year between early May and mid-November in the Berkshires and Southern Vermont.

From Dorset to Sheffield, the markets promote local agriculture, food producers and other farming related goods made in the region -- from cheeses, mushrooms, honey, fresh bread and seedlings to rhubarb, fresh greens and lettuces, and more as the season goes on.

Saturday and Sunday are the most popular market days -- 10 of the 16 are on the weekend -- in order to capture the second-homeowner and tourist clientele, as well as serve the year-round residents.

Now in its second season, the Pittsfield Farmers Market learned last year they had to meet the needs of a large, diverse population, according to coordinator Jessica Conzo. They also realized the need for more and varied events each week to educate the public about food related topics.

"We have more frequent workshops this year," Conzo said. "[Recently], we had a chef demonstration from Rachel Portnoy of Chez Nous in Lee, and her [presentation] was swamped with people."

The initial success of the Pittsfield Farmers Market has organizers researching the concept of a monthly, indoors winter market that, if feasible, would be a year or two away.

Hancock Farmers Market, another outdoor market, has expanded following a solid first year. After managing the Williamstown Farmers Market for three years, Roger and Nancy Johnson were ready in 2013 to host their own at their Appletree Hill Organic Farm on Route 43. The Johnsons' weekly agricultural venture held on Sunday was so popular, they added a Saturday market this spring at the request of loyal customers.

"There's a lot of competition for farmers markets, and that's a good thing," said Roger Johnson, third generation owner of the farm. "We're one mile away from Jiminy Peak, and a lot of people coming to town want things to do."

A farmer running a farmer's market has its advantages, according to Amelia Wolfe of Wolfe Spring Farm in Sheffield and manager of the Sheffield Farmers Market.

"My working relationship with other farmers and understanding the flexibility of farming helps me," she said.

Wolfe also encourages customer interaction by staging free community programs such as pottery making and classes on how to can tomatoes.

Farmers markets also afford food producers to try new products on willing shoppers.

Last year, Kevin and Barbara Kirshner of Berkshire Grain in Lenox, makers of gluten free granola snacks, unveiled their wine jellies made from surplus bottled vino.

"We brought them to [Lenox Farmers Market], and people went bonkers, "Kevin Kirshner said. "Even in the same season you need to re-invent yourself."

But the growing number of popular local farmers markets means the smaller ones are working harder to keep fresh and varied, according to Jessica Ripley.

The market manager of the Otis Farmers Market said special events, themes and food producers selling a new item are crucial to maintaining customer loyalty.

"The more farmers markets starting, the harder it is to keep your customer base," Ripley said. "As for the vendors, they're pretty loyal."

Wolfe believes Berkshire farmers markets have yet to reach their potential.

"Each market in each town is different, and they haven't reached the capacity of people we could serve," she said.

If you go ...

What: Lee Farmers Market

Where: Village green in front of Lee Congregational Church, 25 Park Place

When: Thursdays, 2 to 6 p.m., June 5 through Sept. 25

Admission: Free

Information: (413) 394-4309 or leefmarket@gmail.com


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