VERGENNES — Vergennes Farmers’ Market board members said the combination of a recruiting effort, a switch from Mondays to Thursdays and a little bit of momentum helped triple the number of vendors at the market in the past two years.
As recently as 2010, maybe a half-dozen vendors lined up along the sidewalk that fronts Main Street in City Park. This summer, as many as a dozen-and-a-half sellers of fruits, vegetables, hot foods, meats and crafts are showing up and arranging themselves in a triangle along that sidewalk and two more that lead to the green’s central monument to Commodore Thomas MacDonough.
The new alignment had to be created on the fly, according to market board member Theresa Smith, a Panton resident and Vergennes Union High School teacher who, before a thunderstorm struck on a recent Thursday afternoon, was grilling farm-raised meat for her first customers.
“Honestly, we were not prepared for this many vendors this year,” Smith said. “We had to rethink because we had always set along that front block there, and suddenly we had people ... who ended up behind the market.”
Smith said many longstanding vendors are enjoying much better proceeds. She estimates her take has improved by “probably at least 500 percent.”
“It feels remarkable. I remember coming here and making 30 bucks and thinking, ‘Yes!’” she said.
VENDORS SIGN ON
The market’s surge has also caught the attention of vendors. Ferrisburgh’s Flower Power, which sells vegetables as well as flowers and some craft items, returned to the market this summer after a multi-year absence.
Flower Power signed on as one of the original market vendors when the market was founded earlier this past decade, but had dropped out in recent years.
Ginger Matthews, who was operating the Flower Power booth, explained both why the farm left after a few years of its onetime Saturday morning and early afternoon schedule.
“It was just the three of us lined up along the sidewalk ... and the days were just long and hot, and not nearly as many people ... were coming back then,” Matthews said. “There weren’t as many (vendor) options. I feel like people driving by could see all the options rather than come in and investigate for themselves.”
Flower Power then also had other, more profitable choices, she said.
“Especially when there are so many other markets in Vermont we have to really put a lot of value on each day,” Matthews said.
But the farm owners got a phone call from a market board member this spring urging them to give it another shot on the new day and pointing out the number of vendors had grown to eight on most days in 2011.
Matthews said Flower Power decided to do so, and has not regretted it. Now the markets in Vergennes and Shelburne are the two to which Flower Power makes regular commitments.
“It’s gone really well. It’s slowly increased throughout the summer,” she said. “In the beginning we were still trying to balance whether it was worth it or not, but after seeing so many people come out, not only to sell, but a lot of people coming out for the summer market, I think it’s been really profitable.”
That recruiting call was not an exception. Board member Lynne Rapaport, who is not a vendor but is the Addison Northwest Supervisory Union farm-to-school program coordinator, credited her fellow board members with working hard to persuade more vendors to sign on.
“The people that took it (the board) over just had a vested interest and a love for the local scene, to make the community more of a community,” Rapaport said.
Smith said the market was getting lost in the shuffle on Mondays, when also regular band concerts are held in the evenings. Then, when the change was made to Thursdays from 3 to 6:30 p.m., the market gained momentum as more vendors signed on due to the recruiting, and thus consumers had more choices and more of an experience.
“(It was) the switch from Thursday to Monday and then just beating down the doors and just saying we need vendors, and saying the more vendors we get the better it’s going to be. It’s that Catch-22 of if you don’t have vendors nobody is going to come, and if nobody comes it’s hard to get vendors,” she said. “I think it’s just attention. It’s just paying attention to it and saying, ‘What do we have? What do we need? Who can we call?’ And actually getting out there.”
Another former long-term vendor who returned this year is Louie Lalumiere, who with his wife, Karolyn, operates a major vegetable farm in Ferrisburgh and attends up to 10 markets a week. Although they were market founders, they had dropped out when the market switched days because of scheduling conflicts with other, bigger markets.
So far, Louie Lalumiere said the return has gone well.
“It’s doing quite well right now,” he said. “It started off slow this spring. I thought it was pretty slow, but it’s picked up quite nicely lately.”
Lalumiere sounded a note of caution, however. He would like to see if the good business outlasts the tourist season.
“The economy is still (soft). People are pinching,” Lalumiere said. “Things are better right now, but I don’t know what is going to happen. Some of this is tourist-driven, too. Labor Day may tell a different story. We’ll find out.”
Market organizers have taken some steps to ensure its long-term health. One, they say, has already paid dividends: Vendors are accepting Vermont Agency of Agriculture Farm-to-Family coupons. Those coupons, which are distributed to families who are eligible economically, allows them to buy healthy fresh fruit and produce from farmers, typically at farmers’ markets.
Organizers are also trying to establish a yourfarmstand.com program, which allows customers to order goods online from markets in advance and then pick them up at the site.
Board members also hope to raise the markets’ profile by hosting a community dinner from 4 to 7 p.m. on this Thursday, Aug. 23, the day before a street dance kicks off the city’s annual Vergennes Day celebration.
Customers will be able to buy dinner tickets in a range from of $4 to $12, exchange them for hot, ready-to-eat items in the designated price ranges from the market vendors, and sit at tables and chairs that will be set up on the grass in the middle of the vendors triangle. Local singer-songwriter Josh Brooks has already signed on to entertain, and organizers might arrange at least one more musical act.
Organizers will keep pushing to improve the market, Smith said.
“The market was a lot better last year, and this year has far surpassed that. It’s just been this gradual increasing over time and the visibility increasing, which then makes us more attractive to vendors,” Smith said. “The only thing we don’t seem to have is a cheese vendor.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.