When you think farmers’ market, you generally flash to images of vegetables, loads of them, especially the ones you imagine as most bountiful where you live. In New England, picture a progression from leafy greens through radishes and turnips, zucchini, carrots, right along to wintry roots, with strawberries, peaches and apples making their own seasonal fruit-march. Now add not just maple syrup but jewelry or pottery, knives or note cards, walking sticks or soaps.
Lisa Auclair, manager of the Norfolk Connecticut Farmers’ Market, defines her town in the Connecticut Berkshires as more of an artisan community than a farming one. The town’s artisan guild shut down five years ago, leaving “a hole.” She explains, “We knew starting a farmers’ market would be hard, because the area is so saturated with them.” Given the town’s reputation for artisans, one way to stand out, the steering committee ventured, might be to include crafts in their new market.
After confirming that their farmers were amenable, the market’s steering committee invited artisans to join in. According to Auclair, the artisans’ presence enhances the market. “There’s greater diversity with crafters included,” she says. “It’s a simple way to ensure that people’s visits are that much more interesting. The market advertises as both a farmers’ market and a craft market.”
Having increased from 12-15 vendors to more like 30, Auclair explains, “We rotate artisans to give as many people as possible a chance to participate.” If two soap makers or jewelers are interested in participating, Auclair schedules them on alternating weeks.
Two Greenfield, Massachusetts’ potters, Lucy Fagella and Tiffany Hilton, share a spot at Greenfield’s Farmers’ Market. Fagella has been selling her wares there for just the past couple of years; Hilton’s done so for five. Fagella says, “I only bring my less expensive farm and food related items... garlic grates, butter keepers, cheese dishes, salt cellars, syrup pitchers.”
Besides generating sales, the market introduces people to Fagella’s work. “Many people end up coming to my studio sales due to my presence at the market,” she says.
For artist and knife maker John Manikowski bringing his goods to a farmers’ market set his business on a new path. He says, “I’ve been an artist all my life—painting, drawing, and woodworking, which I taught. My knife business started with my making some wooden handles for knives, enjoying that and moving onto carving knives about four years ago. I was having a lot of fun. Once I’d made a bunch of them, I thought to myself ‘either these will sell or everyone I know is getting a knife for Christmas.’ A farmer friend invited me to set up a table next to his farm stand at the Hudson New York Farmers’ Market.” Manikowski didn’t have to give everyone he knew a knife.
Manikowski sold knives at a winter farmers’ market in Sheffield, Massachusetts. After a “good Christmas season” there, he realized farmers’ markets suited his new product.
While he could—and sometimes does—exhibit at crafts fairs or a knife show, at the farmers’ markets, he’s the sole knife vendor. “At a knife show,” he says, “I have to shine that much more to be noticed.” He thinks it helps that for farmers’ markets, the product he’s selling is often associated with food. “At the markets where I sell, I think people like how varied the selection is. There’s jewelry. There are brooms, birdhouses—and even walking sticks.” He sells his knives at both the Sheffield Farmers’ Market and the Norfolk, Connecticut Farmers’ Market.
Of these Berkshire area markets, Manikowski says, “These are such good markets because so many people in the Berkshires in the summer are staying at second homes. They have expendable income and don’t blink at dropping money on handmade items. Their guests buy house gifts. One woman, who bought four knives as gifts, is an expert in Asian antiquities. So often, the people who buy my knives really know craftsmanship and art.” He adds, “Generally speaking, people on vacation are looser with their money.”
Manikowski says that it takes some time to establish oneself at a market. “People might look a while before they buy,” he explains. Younger kids come around weekly, especially, he says, 12 year-old boys: “Every 12 year-old boy loves the knives.” This summer a boy coveted a particular knife, Manikowski recounts. That knife, which Manikowski calls a “scrappy,” is made from shards that fall away while making blades. The boy was saving up when a woman bought it. Manikowski says, “I told the woman that there was a little boy who’d be mighty disappointed she’d gotten it. He has to work up affection for a new knife, now.”
Along the way Manikowski began to sharpen knives, a service that has made him indispensible to many frequenters of the markets. Calling it “a surprising side business,” he sharpens about 30 knives per market.
JP and Marian Welch have been working on their Worthington, Massachusetts land—Justamere Tree Farm—since 1982. According to Marian Welch, farmers’ markets represent much more than an opportunity to sell their goods. She says, “We get to educate people about what we do. People don’t necessarily understand how much work goes into the products we sell. Some people don’t realize we make the syrup or that people live the way we do. It’s a great thing to help them ‘get it.’”
The brooms the couple sells absolutely have a story. Welch explains, “We get handles for the brooms from the woods. The fiber we use comes from a broomcorn plant. This fiber doesn’t break and dust doesn’t get up into the brooms the way synthetic brooms do.” If you’re standing at the farmers’ market when she tells this story, she knows you’re also admiring the craftsmanship that so obviously went into creation of the object you are regarding. She says, “We tell people to pick the broom up and try it. Our brooms feel good in your hands.”
The brooms function extremely well, says Welch, who then tells this particular story: “One woman came and bought a broom. She said it was so beautiful she couldn’t bear to use it and she hung it up where she could admire it. Eventually, the broom in the closet fell apart and she had to grab ours. She came back and told us she’d never had a better broom in her life. From then on, she used and displayed her broom.”
It’s taken some time to find the right farmers’ markets for their products. Welch says, “You have to hang on at the beginning. It takes time for a farmers’ market to catch on.” One of the markets—Northampton Massachusetts’ Tuesday Market—has almost doubled its customer base in its third year.
While the couple has exhibited at crafts fairs, Welch says, “We’re doing more farmers’ markets than crafts fairs. It feels as if ‘our crowd’ comes to farmers’ markets, by which I mean that the people attracted to our work appreciate our goods’ beauty—and functionality. We fit better where the emphasis upon what’s being sold are goods to be used or consumed, rather than simply admired.”
Welch thinks that people who come to farmers’ markets have an interest in “the farmers’ lifestyle.” She suggests, “There’s a romance people have or imagine about farming, and that’s actually part of what you’re selling along with the products.”
So, if the increase in interest in farmers’ markets and local food has a kind of back to the earth vibe, another ripple is this: a return to the value of craftsmanship and a greater appreciation for things made well, things made to be useful.
Check out Sarah Buttenwieser’s blog, Standing in the Shadows: http://www.valleyadvocate.com/blogs/standingintheshadows.com