Browsing a wealth of veggies at the Copley Square Farmers Market in Boston.Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
Sponsored by Mass Farmers Markets
When Boston hosted the first official farmers market on North American soil in 1634, the idea of things like organic standards and sustainable practices — not to mention mobile payment apps — was still a few centuries away. But what appealed to 17th-century shoppers still flourishes today: The farmers market is a place to connect with growers and makers, catch up with your neighbors, and explore a cornucopia of local food you can find nowhere else.
While farmers markets still thrive in Boston — including the Hub’s biggest and busiest, in Copley Square — these days there are more than 200 scattered across the Bay State, each one inviting customers to join in its unique community and enjoy a sense of being in the local know. And by loading up your tote bags at one of these markets, you’re not only buying food you can feel good about eating, you’re also helping ensure that this bounty will continue in the years to come.
“When you buy from a local farmers market, you’re directly supporting our hard-working farmers in Massachusetts,” says Ashley Randle, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner and a fifth-generation dairy farmer. “Your support goes well beyond that, though: You’re also contributing to the overall local economy, helping our efforts to increase food production, and being an active participant in your local community.”
The role of farmers markets in strong local food systems is so vital that it inspired the creation of National Farmers Market Week, which has been celebrated every August since 1999. Locally proclaimed as Massachusetts Farmers Market Week, this year’s event (Aug. 6–12) marks the perfect time to hit up a local market for a day of family togetherness, community fun, and — most of all — fantastic food.
“We use food to celebrate holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. We use it to commiserate loss. It reminds us of moments in our past,” notes Edith Murnane, executive director of the nonprofit Mass Farmers Markets. “Food has the ability to strengthen and embolden each of us. It is fun and playful, and there is no better place to engage with food than at a farmers market.”
The diversity of offerings across Massachusetts farmers markets is amazing: There’s meat, dairy, and produce, yes, but also seafood, maple and honey, and endless specialty foods. And even among fruit and veggies there’s plenty to explore, says Liza Bemis of Concord’s Hutchins Farm, a regular presence at markets in Cambridge, Somerville, and Belmont.
“Asian greens, Caribbean greens, bitter melon, stuff that’s grown all over the world — more and more people are getting exposed to that through farmers markets,” says Bemis, who co-manages the organic farm that her father and uncle founded 50 years ago. “We started growing amaranth greens five years ago, and at first our customers were sort of like, ‘What’s this?’ Now it’s like we can’t grow enough of it!”
Beyond a selection of greens that includes a whopping 35 kinds of lettuce, Hutchins Farm also grows tomatoes, corn, squash, and more. But Bemis says that anything from weather to plant disease can affect what they offer from year to year — which points to another perk of shopping at farmers markets. “Farms have different microclimates, so maybe one vendor will have great lettuce but no amazing tomatoes, and another vendor will have the opposite. I think it makes for a wonderful experience to connect with a lot of different farmers at the market, and learn about their different situations across Massachusetts.”
The one-on-one connection between customer and producer has other benefits, too, says Allie Catlin, who runs Smith’s Country Cheese in Winchendon with her husband, Jake, along with his brother and sister-in-law. “If you buy something in a store and have a specific question about the ingredients or how it’s made, you’d then have to go Google the company and somehow try to get in touch with a human. At the farmers market, we can give people answers to their questions on the spot: ‘Is the rennet is vegetarian or animal-based?’ ‘Why does your label say ‘Made with solar power?’ ‘How do you take care of your cows?’ Things like that.”
And buying directly from the source gives you a chance to buy things you couldn’t even find in stores. “Some of what we make isn’t ideal for shipping long distances, like our [glass] bottled milk and our cultured butter, which are both really big sellers at farmers markets. So customers who attend the markets will get the benefit of the fact that there’s a lot more we can drive over in a van than we could ever ship out!”
Farmers markets are a win-win for producers and customers, agrees Kate Stillman of Stillman Quality Meats, a pasture-based livestock farm and butchery in Hardwick. A self-described “born-and-bred farmers market girl” whose grandparents were dairy farmers and whose parents grew vegetables, Stillman offers mail ordering and walk-in sales at her farm, but says that farmers markets account for nearly 70 percent of her income.
“When you talk about getting local food on a plate, I would say the farmers markets are the best for farms and they’re the best for consumers because they’re a really low-input business model. You’re not having to maintain a storefront and utilities and huge rents; you just go in, work hard, sell like crazy, and come home.
“They’re essential. That’s why I come off my farm five days a week during the summer to hit the road,” she continues. “It’s a two-hour drive each way on my best possible day to get into a market, but it’s important that my face is there, to represent my business and for me to chat with people. And you know something? I do very little ‘selling,’ telling customers they should try this or that. Most of the time we’re chatting about our kids or, you know, somebody’s elderly mom. Just talking life with people.”
The summer harvest season shifts into high gear in August, meaning there will be mountains of farm-fresh produce on offer during Massachusetts Farmers Market Week, Aug. 6–12. Many markets will mark the occasion with special events, so be sure to check the websites of those near you before planning your local-food shopping spree. Here’s a sampling from Mass Farmers Markets to get you started:
Sunday, Aug. 6
• Newburyport Farmers Market, 9 a.m.–1 p.m. Special event: Newburyport Farmers Market Tomato Festival (10 a.m.–noon), where you can taste and learn about an array of common and less-common tomato varieties.
• Sturbridge Farmers Market, 9 a.m.–1 p.m.
Monday, Aug. 7
• Truro Farmers Market, 8 a.m.–noon. Special event: chef demo.
• Central Square Farmers Market, Cambridge, noon–6 p.m. Special event: Youth-Grown Tomato Contest (3–5:30 p.m.), with judges including Massachusetts Commissioner of Agricultural Resources Ashley Randle and From Scratch cookbook author and WBUR personality Chef Joe Gatto.
Tuesday, Aug. 8
• Copley Square Farmers Market, Boston, 11 a.m.–6 p.m. Special event: SilkRoad Global Musician Workshop (begins at 4:30 p.m.).
• Farmers Market at Forest Park, Springfield, 12:30–6 p.m. Join Mayor Domenic J. Sarno and Winton Pitcoff, Deputy Commissioner of Agricultural Resources, in celebrating the farmers market’s 25th year operating in the Forest Park community. Special events begin at 1 p.m. and include face painting, a scavenger hunt, and a cooking demo.
Wednesday, Aug. 9
• Davis Square Farmers Market, Somerville, noon–6 p.m.
• West Tisbury Farmers Market, 9 a.m.–noon
Thursday, Aug. 10
• Framingham Farmers Market, 3–7 p.m. Special events: From 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., Tammy Donroe, a frequent contributor to America’s Test Kitchen and author of New England Desserts, will be signing cookbooks and providing a taste of her Plum Torte. At 5 p.m., join Mayor Charlie Sisitsky, Deputy Commissioner of Agricultural Resources Winton Pitcoff, and other city and state officials in celebrating the success of the relaunched Framingham Farmers Market.
• Kendall Square Farmers Market, Cambridge, noon–6 p.m. Special events: At 2 p.m., join Deputy Commissioner of Agricultural Resources Winton Pitcoff and city and state officials in celebrating the relaunch of the Kendall Square Farmers Market. At 2:30 p.m., look for Commonwealth Cambridge chef and Bravo TV alum Steve “Nookie” Postal as he hosts a discussion, demonstration, and taste of BBQ. And from 4 to 6 p.m., join in Green Cambridge’s bicycle tour of local growing spaces, a “tour du farm” that begins and ends at the Kendall Square Farmers Market and Commonwealth Cambridge.
• Lynn Central Square Farmers Market, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
• Salem Farmers Market, 3–7 p.m. Special event (TBD): Salem Heritage Days highlight.
Friday, Aug. 11
• Copley Square Farmers Market, Boston, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
• Lenox Farmers Market, 11 a.m.–3 p.m.
• Shelburne Falls Farmers Market, 2–6:30 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 12
• Great Barrington Farmers Market, 9 a.m.–1 p.m.
• Hingham Farmers Market, 9 a.m.–1 p.m.
• Natick Farmers Market, 9 a.m.–1 p.m.
• Newton Farmers Market, 9:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
• North Adams Farmers Market, 9 a.m.–1 p.m.
• Northampton Farmers Market, 8 a.m.–1 p.m.
• Orleans Farmers Market, 8 a.m.–noon
• Pittsfield Farmers Market, 9 a.m.–1 p.m.
• Provincetown Farmers Market, 9–1 p.m.
• Roslindale Farmers Market, 9 a.m.–1:30 p.m.
• West Tisbury Farmers Market, 9 a.m.–noon