Valley Bounty: Hilltown Mobile Market
Published July 2nd, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Jacob Nelson
“They’re not part of the Valley. They’re not covered by the Berkshires. The Hilltowns really are their own thing,” observes Seva Water, who coordinates the Hilltown Mobile Market for the Hilltown Community Development Corporation.
The Hilltowns straddle the western reaches of Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties and the eastern edge of Berkshire County. Life here is characterized by things being spread out – people, jobs, food – more than anywhere else in the state. It gives rise to the area’s beloved rural character. When you’re a local farmer, though, it does make it harder to find customers.
Barring exceptions like the Ashfield Farmers Market (Saturdays, 9-1) and Shelburne Falls Farmers Market (Fridays 2-6:30), most Hilltowns lack enough customer concentration to support stationary farmers markets. Instead, says Water, “many Hilltown farmers pack up and drive down to farmers markets in the Valley, where they might be selling to their neighbors who hopped in their cars and drove down too.”
Addressing this connectivity issue, in 2019 the Hilltown CDC and other partners launched the Hilltown Mobile Market. Run out of a van, this farmers market drives everywhere so farmers and Hilltown residents don’t have to. They’ve grown each year, and in 2022, they hope moving to online ordering can help them expand service even more.
As Water explains, “it started with the Hilltown CDC asking farmers what support they needed to succeed and learning that most would benefit from marketing their products together. And second, we wanted to expand access to local food to anyone who wants it.” The mobile market is a way to do both.
Initial funding for the project came through a partnership with Healthy Hampshire, a public health-focused nonprofit that helped leverage state funding to open 3 mobile markets in the region in quick succession – Grow Food Northampton’s Community Food Distribution Project in 2018, the Hilltown Mobile Market in 2019, and the Amherst Mobile Market, run by Many Hands Farm Corps, in 2020.
That first year, “we had two stops and ran the market out of the back of a Subaru,” says Water. “The second year we got a grant to purchase a van, which was a game changer, added two more locations, and almost doubled sales. We had something and we kept running with it.”
Year three, 2021, again brought huge increases in sales. Preparing for their fourth year, organizers realized they’d need to be creative to expand sales for farmers and customers without adding vehicles or staff. So, they’ve shifted from offering market-style, in-person shopping during a given time window to asking customers to order in advance from an online menu.
With people ordering in advance, they can buy exactly what’s needed from farmers, remove any will-they-still-have-tomatoes-by-the-time-I-get-there anxiety for customers, and reduce food waste. This year they’ll start selling local meat, dairy, and pantry items too – tripling the number of local producers they buy from and extending their season into November as they sell items with longer storage life. Pick-up locations will increase from 4 to 16, stretching from Blandford to Cummington and from Westhampton out to Chester.
Anyone can buy food from the Hilltown Mobile Market – it’s not exclusive. “Even if it’s just for one week, you can make an account, see what’s for sale, and place an order,” says Waters. Yet Market Operator Monica Guzik estimates 80-90% of their customers sign up as shareholders, buying some amount of market credit up front to spend down over the season. That’s appreciated, says Guzik, because, “it ensures the market has customers to start, and gives us working capital for up-front expenses.” Shareholders can spend their balance any weeks they choose on any items in stock.
The Hilltown CDC tries to make shopping at the market affordable to all. Anyone who receives food assistance through SNAP – and therefore also receives Healthy Incentive Program (HIP) benefits from the state for purchasing local produce – can combine both to pay for a Hilltown Mobile Market share. Senior Farmers’ Market and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) coupons are also accepted. Customers paying with these methods still order online but must choose from 4 pick-up locations to pay in person per program requirements.
The Hilltown CDC also distributes vouchers to tenants in the low- and moderate-income housing they manage and offers subsidized shares to low-income community members who don’t qualify for these other programs. One way or another, “we can make this food accessible to pretty much anyone,” says Water.
Online ordering poses its own barrier, “especially for older customers and those not comfortable using a computer,” says Water. To address it, “we’re offering tutorials, sign up events, and visiting groups and individuals directly to help them learn the process. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. We really want people to feel comfortable with this.”
What’s the impact of this big idea so far? In terms of supporting local farmers, in 3 years the Hilltown Mobile Market has purchased 5,750 Lbs. of Hilltown-grown food totaling $22,969. Water’s assessment: “we’re not making a huge difference in any farms’ annual sales yet.” But many farmers say if the market can find more customers, they’re eager to sell more food.
Overall, continued support from funders and partner organizations like local community health centers, councils on aging, and food policy councils confirm a broad consensus that the Hilltown Mobile Market serves the public good. It’s certainly made a difference in the lives of its customers, 71% of whom said in a recent survey that their produce consumption increased moderately or significantly during market season.
“At the end of the day, we want people to eat more local food,” says Water. “This helps make that possible.”
Hilltown Mobile Market’s website (hilltownmobilemarket.info) has full details on pick-up times and locations, how to purchase a share, and how the process works. That’s also where prospective customers can register for an account, which is needed for online ordering. Ordering opens July 16th for pick-up the following week, but registration is open now.
A last suggestion from Water: tell your friends. “Word of mouth is still the best way to spread the word – that’s the way things work here in the Hilltowns.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about farmers markets near you – mobile or otherwise – visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.