A Marketplace for Farmers

We once had a more personal relationship with our food. It came from our gardens or from a farm on the other side of town or a butcher shop or bakery whose owners we’d known for years.

One of the great things about farmer’s markets today is that they connect us again with the sources of our food.

Roxanne Kapitan, manager of the Down Island Farmer’s Market in Vineyard Haven, sees it this way: “I think people are attracted to farmer’s markets now much more because of the focus on local foods. There’s a trust issue. You know where the food is coming from so you know the food is safe for your family.”

Whatever the reason, farmer’s markets on the Vineyard have been flourishing for years. The West Tisbury market is in its thirty-seventh year, the Down Island market at Tisbury Wharf on Beach Road has been operating for four years, and the Edgartown School Farmer’s Market is entering year three.

The Island’s youngest farmer’s market, co-sponsored by the Edgartown School’s Parent Teacher Organization, operates Friday mornings from mid-July through August. It’s an outgrowth of an ambitious school garden established in 2008 as part of the Vineyard’s farm-to-school food program, and students play an integral role in growing, harvesting, and selling their crops.

Linda Alley, co-manager of the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, says that participating in a farmer’s market can be rewarding but it also can be a big undertaking. “Sometimes small farmers can be overwhelmed,” she explains. “They just can’t keep up with the demand.”

The Down Island Farmer’s Market, which is open on Tuesday mornings from late June through early September, may have come up with a way to help these small farmers. “This year we’re going to have a Cooperative Vendors Tent,” explains Roxanne. “It will help out farmers who don’t have time to both grow crops and be at markets. We’ll supply a person who can man the booth. There’s also going to be a business on the Island that delivers produce from farms to the markets and to restaurants – this is really a much-needed service.”

Back when Linda first got involved with the West Tisbury market, she remembers things being pretty loose. “It was in August of eighty-seven and I just waltzed in....I walked around and thought, ‘I could do this,’ and the next Saturday, I went in. I don’t think I even had to ask permission.”

Today there are more rules and permits, but Linda points out that it’s really nowhere near as complicated as most of the off-Island markets. “In West Tisbury,” Linda explains, “we have twelve rules – they’re pretty basic – like vendors can’t smoke or vendors can’t bring pets to the market. There’s also an unwritten rule....You can’t undercut other vendors.”

In addition to the “house rules” of a particular market, there is also some permitting required. “In Tisbury,” Roxanne explains, “you need a permit from the town to sell at the market, and if you’re selling a prepared food, you need a sanitation certificate from your town board of health. You may also be required to have a commercial kitchen and product-liability insurance.”

West Tisbury has the longest season, running from June through October on Saturday and Wednesday mornings. The cost for having a booth on both days for the entire season is $700. The other markets are less expensive, but even at $700, Linda thinks it’s a great deal.

“You’d be surprised at how much business you can do,” she explains. “During the season, I sell about five hundred jars of jelly and jam a week. Guess that’s why I get up at 4 a.m. every morning.”

But if you ask any of the regular vendors, they’ll tell you it’s not just about the money. “At the Down Island market,” Roxanne says, “there’s a lot of camaraderie amongst the vendors; we’re a very cohesive group.”

Linda echoes that sentiment: “I’m just so happy to be out there. I love doing my business and I love seeing return customers. I even try to remember everybody’s name...their children’s names, even their dog’s name. I’m just a social person and the whole thing just makes me happy.”