Farmers market blooming at 40

By RICHIE DAVIS, Recorder Staff

Monday, June 30, 2014

GREENFIELD — It was a different world back in 1974, when Greenfield Farmers Market began.

Not that there weren’t plenty of farms in Franklin County back then. It’s just that there weren’t as many people who thought enough of locally grown food to have supported a dedicated market. Instead, beyond the people who bought their produce at the local A&P, Food Mart or maybe Foster’s Super Market, there were roadside produce stands and their backyard gardens.

The Northampton Farmers Market started up the same summer, following on the success of the Amherst Farmers Market a couple of years earlier, says Greenfield’s current market manager Devon Whitney-Deal.

In those early days, led by farms like Hunting Hills in Montague, the market sputtered along like an old tractor that somehow managed to keep going.

Deerfield farmer Juanita Nelson, who helped organize the market with her husband, Wally, in the parking lot of what is today Greenfield Savings Bank, told Whitney-Deal not long ago, “I had no idea the Greenfield Farmers Market would turn into what it is today,” with about 50 vendors in all and as many as 25 “farm and food” vendors, depending on the time of the season.

One of those vendors, Rich Pascale of Shoestring Farm in Colrain, was one of the original vendors. One of his memories of the market in an earlier era is of Wally Nelson and himself stationed in front of their pickups at Town Hall, with a load of produce on the tables in front of them, when the sky began to darken and other vendors began leaving, along with customers. And then the rains began.

“It was like a ghost town, with nobody there but Wally and me,” recalls Pascale. “It was pouring and the wind was blowing, and Wally had his umbrella and his raincoat with duct tape, and I had my umbrella. I looked over and said, ‘Wally, are we crazy?’ And he said, ‘We may be crazy, but it sure is good being here with you.’ Here we are; just hanging out became we came every Saturday. We had that dedication to the market, to the community. Now it’s come full circle. Forty years is an accomplishment, and it’s still a great joy.”

Back in the old days, recalls Tom Clark, whose Clarkdale Fruit Farm in Deerfield is one of the original vendors that has remained, there were more small-scale roadside farm stands, and the Greenfield market would often peter out after the initial springtime sale of bedding plants and before the arrival of late-summer produce.

There also tended to be more people shopping downtown on Saturdays at a variety of clothing stores and variety stores that still operated without much competition from malls, recalls Clark. But there were also fewer farmers markets in the region’s hilltowns for farmers to have to choose among.

“Greenfield had stayed fairly stable,” he says.

Along the way, the market has moved, from the bank lot to the courthouse parking lot, to a lot at Conway and Main streets, to its current location on Court Square. There, the 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. market plans to remain, open this year until Nov. 22.

In recent years, with Whitney-Deal tending the market the way a gardener would tend her garden, the number of vendors, variety of the market and size the crowd turning out have all grown, with the addition of double Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, credit card purchases and a monthly winter market to keep the season going.

The addition of a new crop of young farmers has also helped the market thrive, agree Whitney-Deal and Pascale.

“The secret is out now in this culture, with this generation of young people who have searched for what’s available in life, and they’re coming back to this. It’s a beautiful thing, life.”

Jay Lord, who was also among the original farmers market members, bringing vegetables and homemade bread from his Fiddlehead Farm in East Colrain, and now a founder of vendor Greenfield Community Farm, recalls, “It was a very small market. I used to come home with $100, and I’d feel like a king. That’s totally different money now. And it was a totally different time, and we attracted small, alternative farms. It was a nice, community thing, yet the scale was so different. The consciousness of the county was so different. I think interest in local food has grown substantially.”

The market has also been helped by farmers turning from wholesale to more direct sales, and the efforts of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture and other groups to raise appreciation for local farm products, says Whitney-Deal, who also works for CISA.

What’s more, she adds, downtown businesses have realized the value of having the market attract people downtown on Saturdays, with music and other entertainment, from Pat and Tex LaMountain to West County Jazz and “Drew Paxton and the 1940s Hit Parade.”

There’s a “kids’ day” planned this weekend, with kid-friendly events planned as well as music by Rob Skelton and the Pitchfork Band. Then to celebrate the 40th anniversary, a special birthday celebration on July 19, complete with cake and some of the original vendors there.