Farmers’ market organizers in Essex are checking in with the community at a time when interest in markets around Chittenden County seems to be flagging.
Sugartree Maple Farm’s Amy Yandow, who sells sweets at the Five Corners Farmers’ Market and is on the market’s board of directors, said she’s seen a precipitous decline in customers this season. Her farm also vends at weekly markets in Winooski, South Burlington and Shelburne.
“Our averages have dropped drastically this year,” Yandow said. “I don’t know the cause, but it’s not at one market, it’s across the board … All of the sudden our regulars aren’t coming.”
In mid-August, the market board distributed a survey at the weekly market and online, asking for thoughts on the market’s Friday evening timing, location and vendor mix. It asks market-goers what they purchase and how much they spend and asks those who don’t regularly attend the market why they don’t.
With the season coming to a close — the last outdoor market at Lincoln Place is set for September 30 — survey results are starting to come in. The board conducted a similar survey in 2014.
“We’re hoping to see if attitudes have changed,” board president Lori Houghton said. “It’s just a check on what the community is thinking about the market. It will help us plan the next two years.”
Houghton confirmed overall market revenue is down based on gross vendor receipts, reported to the board anonymously. Some of that can be attributed to a few rainy Friday evenings, she said, or perhaps an improving economy allowing more people to travel in the summer. But her primary theory is, “Grocery stores are doing a better job of selling local food.”
Yandow agrees but is hoping this is a one-year dip.
“Every year you wonder if it’s worth your time, but then you don’t want to give it up too quickly,” she said.
The survey will inform board discussions about finding a new location for the market, one with better seating and more open space. It will also provide feedback about the optimal vendor mix — whether to maintain a strong produce presence or shift to more of a community gathering with entertainment and prepared foods. The prevalence of area farmers’ markets makes retaining produce vendors a challenge, Houghton said.
“We don’t want it to be a dinner market, but we do want it to be what the community wants,” Houghton said.
The market will continue into the fall with one Saturday indoor market at Maple Street Park on November 12. Last year, the market also held five indoor winter markets, which won’t be held this year due to uncertainty about consistent access to Maple Street’s indoor space.
This story was last updated on September 22 to clarify that there is only one Saturday indoor market this fall.