The Making of the Millerton Farmers Market
Reprinted with permission from Rural Intelligence.
It takes more than a handful of sunburned farmers with bushel baskets of just-picked vegetables to make a compelling farmers’ market. “It takes fruit, too!” says Jenny Hansell, who oversees the five-year-old Millerton Farmers’ Market (Saturdays 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.). She is—and isn’t—joking. Hansell functions like a curator, choosing vendors that will complement one another to create a one-stop shopping experience. “The goal is to make it possible for someone to do as much of their grocery shopping for the week as possible—bread, meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables, wine. And then, of course, we need enough customers to make it worthwhile for the farmers to show up every week.”
The Millerton Market is run by the Northeast Community Center, a not-for-profit that provides educational and social programs for children, parents and seniors. “Farm internships for teenagers is a major reason why the center runs the market, which is twice as big as last year’s,” says Hansell (near right with market manager Betsy McCall.) “We now have 20 vendors and we have a waiting list,” she says, explaining that a successful market is as much about fostering a sense of community as purchasing food. To generate traffic and goodwill, the market has live music every week, children’s activities, and cooking demonstrations by local chefs such as Tim Cocheo of No. 9 Restaurant. “But we won’t let it become a crafts fair—it’s still all about farmers,” says Hansell, who dislikes having to tell local residents that they cannot set up tables and sell tomatoes from their backyard gardens. “We had to make rules to protect the farmers who have made a commitment to us.”
It’s more of a balancing act than one might imagine. Hansell was excited to get Marilyn Moore to bring her roadside food cart to the market where she prepares made-to-order breakfast sandwiches on a grill. “But we had to make sure that she uses local eggs and local sausage,” says Hansell, which explains why the sandwich tastes so good but costs $5. She wooed Elizabeth Ryan of Breezy Hill Orchards in the Hudson Valley so the market would have fresh fruit like strawberries, cherries and peaches. But she also worried about Breezy Hill’s dominating the market with its large, ethnically diverse assortment of baked good and prepared foods such as challah, fresh pasta, fresh salsa and tamales. “The kitchen at our farm reflects the diversity of the people who work there,” explains Ryan. (FYI: The salsa and tamales are excellent.) Says Hansell: “Having Breezy Hill here has been a really great addition.”Diversity is a theme of the Millerton Farmers’ Market. As everyone knows, the paradox of buying local food is that it’s usually more expensive than supermarket produce from California or South America, which can make farmers markets seem (counterintuitively) elitist. So Hansell has devised a way for people on food stamps to use their government issued EBT cards at the market to purchase wooden $1 and $5 tokens (right) that can be used at any of the farmers’ stalls. “And then we reimburse the farmers,” explains Besty McCall, the market manager who used to work at New York City’s Greenmarket and now spends weekdays at the Wassaic Community Farm. “Organic farmers like Dominic Palumbo of Moon on the Pond Farm, who have high prices, give double value to anyone using the tokens.”
One of the things that makes Millerton special, according to McCall, is that most of the stands are staffed by owners. “We have Don Lewis of Wild Hive, Jerry Peele of Herondale, and Dominic here almost every week,” she says. “Having relationships with farmers is what a really good farmers’ market is all about.”
Roberto Flores of Good Dogs Farm agrees. He says the Millerton market has its own personality, which is genuinely collegial and inclusive.. “You have rich people and not-so-rich people shopping side by side,” he says. “You don’t feel like anyone is there because they feel an obligation to shop locally. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.”