Northampton’s Saturday Farmers Market – one of the first in the state – Celebrates 40th Anniversary.

NORTHAMPTON — In 1974, UMass Extension vegetable specialist John Howell visited area farmers to talk them into coming to Gothic Street on Saturday mornings to sell their produce directly to customers at a little thing he was trying to start called a farmers market.

“Some of them were skeptical — well, most of them were,” said Howell, who is retired and lives in South Deerfield. He convinced about six to leave their busy farms to come to the first Northampton Farmers Market that year, but even he did not imagine how integral the market model would become in the area agricultural industry.

“I said to people, ‘Wouldn’t this be neat?’ But I never thought it would be an important way for them to market and sell their produce,” he recalled. “I guess I was wrong… I was glad to be wrong about that.”

After the annual winter hiatus, the 40th season of the Northampton Farmers Market kicks off on Gothic Street Saturday at 7 a.m.

When the weekly market started four decades ago, it was only the third in the state, Howell said. A lot has changed at the market since then, from the diversity of products offered to the community’s views on local produce.

Interest in buying local produce, which started small in the 1970s, has skyrocketed, he said. As a result, more farmers and customers flocked to the market, started other markets, and found new ways to sell to customers.

“It really has taken off in all fashions — farmers markets became an important segment of marketing in Massachusetts, direct marketing at roadside stands has been going on,” Howell said. “And in the last 15 years or so, there’s been a big increase in CSAs.” (CSA refers to community supported agriculture farm-share programs.)

“It’s good for the farmers because they get more of the retail dollars, although they have more expenses, too,” he said.

Howell hasn’t been involved in the market’s running for more than 35 years, but he said he is “very happy to see it’s still doing well.”

Richard Tracy, 55, president of the volunteer committee that runs the market, agrees that the market is thriving. He is a regular presence, representing Intervale Farm in Westhampton, which he owns with his wife, Maureen Dempsey, 54.

For about the last 15 years, the market has had as many producers as it can fit — around 20 — and there has been a steady waiting list of farmers hoping to sell there.

“I think it’s a big milestone, something to celebrate,” Tracy said about the 40th anniversary.

“A lot of businesses come and go, markets come and go, and this is a real tribute to the vendors we’ve had and the customers from Northampton and the surrounding area,” Tracy said. “You need dedicated customers you can count on.”

Early years

The Northampton Farmers Market got its start a few years after one opened in Amherst, which Howell said was likely the first market in the state.

Around the same time, the Springfield Farmers Market was born when Howell’s predecessor, Walter Melnick, convinced farmers who sold their produce to retailers at a wholesale market on Avocado Street in Springfield to stick around after 7 a.m. to sell directly to consumers.

With those markets in mind, Howell joined forces with Paul Walker, then president of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, and former Hampshire County Planner Richard M. Gaffney to start up a market in Northampton.

The city agreed to let them close and use Gothic Street. “It started kind of slow at first but it was moderately successful,” Howell said.

The market moved to a space behind the Hampshire County Hall of Records on King Street for two seasons during construction on the Hampshire County Courthouse. A few years after he helped start the market, Howell said, his work was done and he left it to the farmers to run.

A young couple who was just getting started farming vegetables decided to take a chance on joining the still-young Northampton Farmers Market. John, 60, and Debra O’Leary, 57, of White House Farm in Southampton, attended their first farmers market in 1977 when they were 24 and 21 years old. They’ve been members ever since.

“We never knew anything about farmers markets,” John O’Leary said, until they heard about the one in Northampton. “We typically just saw stuff sold at roadside stands then. It was all new to us.”

O’Leary spent much of his youth on his uncle Chet O’Leary’s dairy farm at the Miller Avenue site that is now home to White House Farm. But he was always more interested in growing things than dairy farming, he said.

When he was at UMass studying fisheries and wildlife, he read a book called “Getting Cash from your Garden” and decided to give it a try. At his first market, he and his future wife sold lettuce and peas.

“People loved it, but then we ran out of things to sell and we said, ‘How do we make the season last longer?’” he recalled. “So eventually we put up more greenhouses and grew plants to sell.”

Now, they sell flower, herb and vegetable plants, as well as garlic, tomatoes, their own popcorn and fresh-cut flowers.

In their 37 years at the market, the O’Learys have watched as their customers’ children grow up to be new customers towing their own children by the hand.

Their children, Hannah Mazzoli, 28, and Ian, 24, also grew up at the markets. Now, Hannah works full time on the farm and specializes in growing and arranging flowers.

“Now I stand in the background and my daughter is taking over more and more. She answers people’s questions now,” O’Leary said.

Like John O’Leary, Richard Tracy was a young man when he tried his hand at growing vegetables and joined the market in 1980. His father, Dick Tracy, had decided to quit dairy farming, so the fields were open for the 21-year-old college student to start growing vegetables to sell at the market, then in its sixth year.

“There were probably eight or nine farmers there when I started going,” he said. The market had organized according to the guidelines released by the Massachusetts Federation of Farmers Markets in 1978. Members elect officers, and have chosen Tracy as president every year since 1984. He hasn’t been able to get anyone else to take over since, he joked.

Eventually, the market became popular enough that there had to be a waiting list for vendors. It was first come, first served, but about 15 years ago, the market committee realized it worked out best for everyone to have a diverse array of producers, he said.

These days, free spots that open up at the market are offered to producers with something different to offer. This year, the only new vendor will be Mayval Farm in Westhampton, a dairy farm that is starting to produce cheese, Tracy said.

In the last few years, Tracy has been pleased to see a number of new farms run by young people have joined the market, including Crimson and Clover Farm in Northampton, Kitchen Garden in Sunderland, and Mycoterra Farm in Westhampton. “There’s definitely some new interest there,” he said.

Despite the growing competition from new farmers markets, farm stands and CSA farms, Tracy said he hasn’t noticed a significant drop in customers — or income — at the Northampton market. Many of them come weekly. In addition, he said, regularly “someone new comes up and says, ‘I never knew this was here.’”

Vendors at the Northampton Farmers Market can only sell what they have grown or produced themselves. For Intervale Farm, that ranges from plants and vegetables to yarn spun from their sheep.

“We’ve also resisted adding professional bakeries and entertainment” as some farmers markets have, Tracy said. “Space is limited anyway but we don’t want to be competing with the shops that pay rent downtown. If people want coffee, they can get some right up the sidewalk.”

The Northampton Farmers Market runs Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. starting this weekend through Nov. 8. A full list of vendors is available at