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Somerville Scene: a winter farmers market is coming

Posted by Your Town  August 6, 2010 12:30 PM

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It's stinkin' hot. "Self," you say to yourself, "quit complaining. In a few short months it'll be winter and you won't have these simple summer pleasures like wearing sandals, strolling down to get local veggies at the farmers market and waiting in line for an hour to eat fried clams."

Well, you can go back to complaining guilt-free, because this winter in Somerville, at least one of those options will still exist: the farmers market. Yes, the proposed Boston Public Market wouldn't be the only year-round game in town. "There's overwhelming demand and people want to see this happen," said Jaime Corliss, director of the city project Shape Up Somerville.

Last month, the city of Somerville got hard data from a survey created by an MIT student group meant to assess demand. Over 40% of the 1500-plus respondents said that if a winter market existed, they would visit every single weekend. The researchers, taking the cautious tack, thought 300-500 would come.

The Union Square farmers market is drawing 1600-2100 people per week, said Mimi Graney of Union Square Main Streets, and the Davis Square market a whopping 2800 or more, according to Hannah Freedberg, outreach director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, which runs five of the state's 215 markets directly and represents the other 210.

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Kimball Fruit Farm has the widest selection of heirloom tomatoes at the Davis Square farmers market

The details aren't set, but "we're moving toward a Saturday morning and we're looking at January through March," Corliss said. The Armory—which is part of the planning group—is a strong contender for the location. The market will include not only Massachusetts produce but fruit and veggies grown by small farms all the way down the East Coast to Florida, sourced by Enterprise Farms and carefully labeled to show which is which.

Of course, what makes a summer farmers market popular isn't just the wares—it's the social scene. At Davis Square August 4, people strolled among the cheesemakers, chocolatier, florist, gelato-maker, baker, meat farm, prepared food table, soapmaker and of course farmers--surprisingly relaxed for a post-work afternoon--swapped tips on which vendor had the best Asian beans and filled baskets with such delicacies as heirloom tomatoes and red leaf amaranth ($3/bunch).

It's even more striking at Union Square, where last Saturday morning's crowds had not only people-watching on the menu but hula-hooping kids. There's always some kind of entertainment, and most weekends a Somerville Arts Council event follows, such as this week's "Rock & Roll Yard Sale" and next Saturday's paper-themed crafts fair. Corliss said that they were interested in teaming with the arts community for the winter as well.

Since launching in 2005, the market has been a force for revitalization in Union, Graney said. Before it started, summer "was just dead, dead, dead." Now visitors spend an average of $25-30 each time plus "almost the same amount at other businesses in the neighborhood," Graney said, particularly other food establishments.

Which doesn't mean that the markets make organizers rich. Farmers markets don't grow on trees. According to Freedberg, it costs the Federation $22,000 to run the Davis market, including $2400 to rent the parking lot. Vendor fees cover about $15,000. The federation is holding a benefit at Flatbread August 11.

The MIT researchers estimated that organizers could charge winter vendors $15-25 per week; factoring in pay for a market manager, they would have anywhere from $45-$428 per week for space rental. Farmers could expect to gross $4500-12,500 weekly.

On the customer side, the money question can be touchy. For some, farmers markets represent yuppification, gentrification—treats for rich folks. Helping low-income communities access local vegetables is key for Shape Up Somerville, Corliss said. "This is part of the mayor's vision for creating a healthy community."

The MIT survey's respondents were overwhelmingly white (84.8%) and spoke English at home (99.2%); most lived in 02143 and 02144, where the two farmers markets are. 20% fell into the low-income bracket, defined by the MIT students as a household income of less than $40,000/year. (About 250 respondents did not reveal their income.)

Somerville's markets are making a concerted push to reach lower-income shoppers. Both have machines that accept EBT/SNAP cards (food stamps) and offer a two-for-one match: say, $20 in tokens for $10 in EBT. To reduce stigma, the machines also accept credit and debit cards. Statewide, about 50 markets take food stamps, Freedberg said.

So few people used EBT at the Union market from 2005-2007 that the organizers couldn't afford to keep the machine, Graney said. But they brought it back for 2010 because last year "we were asked on a nearly weekly basis if we provided this service." As of August 2, there had been 30 SNAP/EBT transactions at the market, with usage doubling July 31 after a PR push from the state. EBT/SNAP transactions have been rising steadily, Freedberg wrote in an e-mail--reaching $80 on July 28.

And in the survey, higher- and lower-income groups didn't look so different when it came to their fondness for farmers markets. Rich and poor, both said the most important consideration was quality, not price. Their spending at the market was similar as well.

The key difference was that lower-income shoppers put greater importance on public transit, especially the bus. Wealthier shoppers cared more about parking. The armory has both.

Said Corliss: "It is going to happen. We are definitely going to make this happen." As you fan yourself this week, you might just look forward to pulling on your snow boots and heading over to buy kale, cheese and greenhouse tomatoes… revitalizing your refrigerator.

And that's good news to bring on National Farmers Market Week, which is Aug. 1-7 this year.

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