A busy morning at the Great Barrington Farmers' Market in 2018. Photo: Megan Haley

Great Barrington Farmers’ Market to kick off 30th anniversary season with changes

Shoppers are asked to arrive with patience, flexibility and face masks as the community makes yet another shift to what will be the season’s “new normal.”

Great Barrington — Rest assured: the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market, a downtown staple for the past three decades, will open this month, albeit one week later than the usual second-Saturday-in-May opening to which many shoppers are accustomed. “The market is going to look really different this year,” Bridgette Stone conveyed in a recent phone interview. That said, “what we are anticipating, based on feedback, is that people are eager,” added Stone, who, along with Kate Burke, serves as co-market manager of the venerable Berkshires institution. The Great Barrington Farmers’ Market will open for its 30th season Saturday, May 16, at its usual Church Street location from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Shoppers are asked to arrive with patience, flexibility and face masks as the community makes yet another shift to what will be the season’s “new normal.”

Great Barrington Farmers’ Market managers Kate Burke and Bridgette Stone in 2018. Photo: Megan Haley

“People are really hungry for normalcy,” Stone emphasized, adding “there’s been a food revival, one focused on our localized food system, and people are really liking the idea of fewer steps in getting their food right from the farm.” In contemplating steps for reopening amid concerns surrounding COVID-19 that continue to sweep the nation, Burke and Stone had to get creative. “As we looked at planning, ever-evolving since February, our heads were spinning,” said Stone, who, like Burke, serves as market manager in a part-time capacity while holding down a full-time job elsewhere. Their guiding principle was simple: “Let’s be as safe and prudent as possible while continuing to provide a [physical] market space.” With this goal at the forefront, collaboration within the vendor community has been key. For instance, there will be fewer physical vendors at the Saturday market, but all vendors’ products will still be available. Stone emphasized working with farmers, in spite of limitations, “to make the market happen in a way that keeps people safe, upholds state regulations, and employs best practices from markets across the country.” As such, shoppers should expect the following changes when the market opens next Saturday:

  • To reduce browsing, pre-orders should be placed ahead of time whenever possible by visiting this link.
  • Special shopping hour for seniors, high-risk and immunocompromised people will be available from 9 to 10 a.m.
  • All shoppers are to wear masks.
  • No dogs are permitted at this time.
  • There will be no eating or drinking at the market.
  • There will be no public bathrooms, seating areas or live music.
  • Shoppers are encouraged to use minimal cash.
  • There will be only one entrance to the market and the number of customers allowed in will be limited. It is possible that you will need to wait in line to enter the market.
  • Please only send one member of your household to the market whenever possible.
  • Please make safe health choices. Do not come to the market if you are sick or have been sick in the last 14 days.

In the midst of myriad changes, the market will continue to offer a dollar-for-dollar match on SNAP through the Market Match program; in addition, HIP benefits can be redeemed at five market vendors. “This is such an important component of the work we do,” said Stone. “We want to support farmers and create opportunities for direct business, [and] the other integral piece is food access, [which is] really tough to address without a physical market.” That said, the Market Match program, in which SNAP recipients receive twice the bang for their buck when shopping for fresh produce, is historically funded by small businesses, many of which which are struggling in the wake of Gov. Baker’s orders that closed nonessential businesses March 24. “We want to support them [at this time],” said Stone, adding, “we can use all of the financial support from the community that is possible to keep this program going.” Last year, the Market Match program fed over 200 households and Stone anticipates the need will be even greater this year. The annual fundraiser, slated for April 27 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, was canceled, a generous grant arrived just in time. “[Funds] from the United Way will ensure we are able to double SNAP, WIC and Nutrition Assistance programs all season long!” Stone reported.

Readying orders for customers of Roots Rising’s virtual farmers market. Photo courtesy Roots Rising

Burke and Stone have been in near constant communication and collaboration with other markets throughout the region that have similarly had to alter the way in which their markets operate. In Pittsfield, Roots Rising has launched an ongoing Virtual Farmers Market that offers countywide delivery on Saturdays (shopping opens at noon on Mondays until the maximum number of orders has been reached). “The pandemic has had a significant impact on both our farmers and our community members,” said Jamie Samowitz and Jess Vecchia, co-directors, in a recent written statement. “This is especially true for low-income residents, as local food is often priced out of their reach,” the pair added, citing seniors and others at high risk for the virus as integral in sparking their delivery system to avoid exposure and stay safe. At present, Roots Rising is selling products from 15 farmers and food producers; anyone who receives SNAP benefits or who is suffering economic hardship receives a $30 discount. “That’s $30 of free food each week for every shopper!” Samowitz and Vecchia said, noting these individuals also receive free delivery, as do all seniors and anyone else at high risk for the virus. Everyone else pays $5 for delivery, which helps cover the costs of running the program, which is currently serving 225 local households each week. “We are working to expand our scale at a sustainable rate,” the pair said, having established community partnerships with Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, Barrington Stage Company, Berkshire United Way and others.

Plants for sale at the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market in 2018. Photo: Megan Haley

Further north, the North Adams Farmers Market has established a virtual space that offers home delivery for North County residents or curbside pick-up on Saturday mornings at the MASS MoCA courtyard. Just over the state line, the Bennington Farmers’ Market in Vermont has established a pre-order drive-thru market, located at the 150 Depot St. parking lot, that currently boasts offerings from 14 local food purveyors. The next markets will be Saturday, May 16, and Saturday, May 30, and pick-up is scheduled alphabetically based on last name: A-F at 10 a.m.; G-L at 10:30 a.m.; M-R at 11 a.m.; and S-Z at 11:30 a.m.. Each of these efforts is designed to meet the community’s need for access to fresh food as well as farmers’ need for economic support during these tough times.

Amid all the uncertainty, Stone is certain of one thing: “If we can continue to support small farms and small businesses, we are building resilience in our community,” she said with conviction. As the county waits with bated breath to hear what Gov. Baker has planned once the stay-at-home orders expire Monday, May 18, the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market will be poised to flourish regardless. “When it’s time to roll things back, we can slowly ease restrictions as opposed to imparting them,” Stone said while imploring the importance of working together: “We are really excited to have [the market open], but to make it work, people need to work with us.” The market, the success of which has been largely attributed to the fact that it is a community gathering space, will “feel really different than it has in the past. But we are still building and supporting community,” Stone emphasized.  “And when these regulations are lifted, we will have the resilience to bounce back because we have been holding each other up.”