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Market Report: Locals Invest in Champlain Islands Farmers Market

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Heirloom tomatoes from Blue Heron Farm - JORDAN BARRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
  • Heirloom tomatoes from Blue Heron Farm

Summer 2020 got off to a rocky start for the Champlain Islands Farmers Market. In the spring, waiting for the state to issue guidelines, the market's leadership didn't know whether its two weekly markets would be able to operate at all. When guidance did arrive, the initial requirement of 12 feet between vendor tents allowed for half the normal number at both markets — generating significantly less revenue, which comes primarily from vendor fees, for market operations.

Nonetheless, the markets — which are held midday on Saturday in Grand Isle and late afternoon on Wednesday in South Hero — cranked into gear. The first four markets of the year were preorder, curbside pickup only.

"That didn't work very well," market treasurer Cindy Walcott said. "We just didn't have much business."

Since in-person sales resumed in the second week of June, though, "It has been amazing ... challenging, but amazing," Walcott said. "The public has been so grateful that they have a place where they feel like they can come and shop safely, buy local food and support local businesses."

While the smaller number of vendors has depressed total market sales, Walcott said, "sales for the vendors we retained have been as good or better — in some cases substantially better — than they were last season for those same vendors."

The Wednesday market on July 29 saw more customers than the same week's market in 2019. The Saturday market is at 70 to 80 percent of last year's numbers, Walcott estimated.

The market keeps track of the number of adults arriving in vehicles and where those vehicles come from, based on license plates. With the Canadian border closed, about 40 percent of its customers now come from states outside Vermont, many by way of local camps and campgrounds.

At one of the final markets of the year in South Hero, I found 10 vendors spaced around a one-way circle on the green behind St. Rose of Lima Church. It was a small collection by farmers market standards but offered a wide array of products: heirloom tomatoes, grass-fed beef, cantaloupe, corn, eggs, hops — in their pure form and in beer — wine, bagels, pasta and pizza. Following the counter-clockwise loop, I chatted with vendors about how their market experiences have gone this year.

Near the entrance, Jules Marín was pulling a blistered Neapolitan-style pizza out of a mobile oven. This is the first year for Marín's business, El Pan de Mañana, which operates at both of the Champlain Islands Farmers Markets and pops up at Kraemer & Kin's tasting room at GreenTARA space in North Hero.

"I just keep it simple," Marín told me, closing the pizza box and handing it off to a customer. After starting the season offering 15 pizzas per day, he has doubled his output to meet demand. "I hear it's good, I think," he joked.

One booth over, Patty and Patrick Helsingius were filling in for the owners of Snow Farm Vineyard, selling the winery's assortment of libations. "We always get a pizza," Patrick said.

"Always. Can you smell that?" Patty added.

As North Hero residents, the Helsingiuses were quick to point out how much the border closure has affected life on the islands.

"We miss the Canadians," Patty said. "It's definitely been a quieter summer."

That was a frequent refrain at the market — one I also heard from Gloria Ruvalcaba, who owns and operates Grand Isle Pasta. "We're used to having a lot of Canadians coming down, and now they're not here," Ruvalcaba said. "But we do have a lot of people coming from Massachusetts and New York."

While the year has felt different, it's been a good one for Grand Isle Pasta, said Ruvalcaba, who's been selling at the market for 10 years, as long as she's been in business. She produces pasta in a small shop beside her house, using semolina flour and locally grown vegetables.

"It's just another way of preserving some of the veggies around here," she said, handing me a package of heart-shaped beet pasta that had caught my eye.

At the next tent, apprentice Norma Park was selling a dazzling selection of heirloom tomatoes from Blue Heron Farm. Park said the Saturday market, which is bigger, seems to attract more tourists and other out-of-towners.

"I feel like the Wednesday market is more people coming from work, more of a community feel," Park said.

I hung back for a moment as another customer ordered a loaf of rye bread from Paula Bradley of Wally's Place. Bradley, who works at the South Hero bakery, is also the president of the Champlain Islands Farmers Market this year.

"I kind of got pushed into the role," she joked. "It's been a very, very interesting year."

Bradley, who described herself as "the cheerleader of the group," detailed how hard the market executive committee has worked to follow the state's regulations.

"I think we've done a very successful job. People are thrilled to be at the market this year," Bradley said. "I've actually done better than I did last summer for six weeks in a row. People are taking their time, and they're supporting their community."

Also keeping the market running is an influx of funding: small grants from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, Rural Vermont and Community Bank, N.A.; and a "local foods in your community" grant from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

Market haul - JORDAN BARRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
  • Market haul

As I approached the Savage Gardens tent, Juneau Gervais stepped up to speak with me. His parents have run the North Hero farm since 2002, he said — before he was born. They couldn't host their popular Flatbread Friday events this summer, but the markets helped make up for that loss of income.

"It's actually quite busy," Gervais said. "They really advertise this market, and a lot of people know about it."

For Heather Kraemer, being at the market is a great opportunity to talk with customers and "plant the seed" in their minds that Kraemer & Kin — the brewery she co-owns with her brother and sister-in-law, and the first in the islands — is on the scene.

"This is such a beautiful collection of goods. It's nice to be serving among them — or selling, I suppose," Kraemer said.

She was referring to the state regulations that prohibit sampling — and consumption in general — at markets this year. Many customers still take a chance on the microbrewery's Black IPA or Blonde Ale, and Kraemer can always direct them to her new tasting room, 10 miles up the road in North Hero.

"As a new vendor, I think the market management is awesome," Kraemer said. "They run a really good ship."

Pomykala Farm is sticking close to home this year, Jane Pomykala noted as she handed a bulging broccoli plant across a line of pink tape to a customer. Absent from the Burlington Farmers Market, the farm shows up at both island events.

"I've been associated with markets for a long time," Pomykala said. "I'm very proud of ... markets in Vermont in general, but this one in particular. We've done so much."

Pomykala commended the market coordinators on their outreach efforts, including making sure that the C.I.D.E.R (Champlain Islanders Developing Essential Resources) shuttle was operating. This is the third year the market has worked with the nonprofit to provide free transportation to island residents who otherwise wouldn't be able to attend — a program Pomykala called "a real feather in our cap."

Like many of the vendors, Joan Falcao said her Health Hero Farm has benefited from a "sudden interest in local food."

People "like the idea that there's food growing near them in case the infrastructure falls apart," Falcao said. Health Hero has missed several markets recently due to that demand — the farm simply ran out of beef.

"People are thinking, I want these farmers to stay around," Falcao said. "These islands are such a special growing environment."

The final vendor in the loop was Mark Montalban, proprietor of Green Acres Homestead. The first weeks of the market were tough for his business, he said, but since in-person shopping began, his sales have increased by 40 percent above last year's average.

"I've been doing markets since 2017, and I've seen people come to markets this year who had never come before," Montalban said.

Thanks in part to that support, the market board has decided to extend the Saturday markets in Grand Isle through the end of October. The Champlain Islands Farmers Market will not host an indoor winter market this year.

"As the market has gone on this summer, the regulars have really embraced it," market manager Julia Small said. "We have really great vendors and a wonderful customer base. We have people that thank us all the time, every week, for having the markets open."

Now in her second year as market manager, Small said that outpouring of local support has made the challenges of operating during the pandemic worth the stress.

"We can't have that gathering space that we're used to having at farmers markets, but it's still pretty social," she said. "It's just social at a distance."

Champlain Islands Farmers Market, Wednesday, September 16, 3-6 p.m., St. Rose of Lima Church, 501 Route 2, South Hero; and Saturdays through October 31, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., St. Joseph - Our Lady of the Lake Parish, 185 Route 2, Grand Isle.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Island Investment"