Throughout my Friday morning phone interview with Stan Biasini, co-owner of Mt. Mansfield Creamery, I could hear a knife coming down on a cutting board: He was preparing cheese for the Capital City Farmers Market the next day. The evening before, when I spoke with Ben and Krysta Zabriskie, the owners of Perrin Farm, in addition to hearing their children in the background, I heard cackling chickens.
In each case, the extra audio was a reminder that there is a lot more to the farmers market than we see on our Saturday morning strolls from vendor to vendor. Producing what is sold begins weeks or months before, and even just the preparation for being at the market often begins days earlier. While many of us may like to sleep in on Saturday mornings, some vendors — particularly those with animals to care for — need to get up as early as 4 a.m. to be ready for market customers at 9 a.m.
Every vendor I spoke with said it is worth it: Now situated in an extremely popular location and with everyone determined to put the disastrous year of the pandemic behind them, Montpelier’s Saturday morning farmers market is thriving.
“Our market sales are up over 30 percent from 2019,” said Randy George, who with his wife Eliza Cain owns Red Hen Bakery. “We gross more in those four hours than we can in any four hours at the café — and our café is busy!”
“The market is doing fantastically well,” echoed Capital City Farmers Market Manager Keri Ryan. She noted that weekly attendance is ranging from 1,500 to 2,000, and both vendors and customers are raving about being beside the Vermont Tax Department Building on State Street. “The new location is magic. I’ve never been so excited about a parking lot before,” she said.
Plenty of convenient parking; lots of room for vendors and customers; smooth walking surfaces with no puddles or broken pavement; some trees, flowers and grass; and accessibility for all are among the reasons vendors used words like “fabulous” and “spectacular” to describe where they are.
“This is one of the best markets in the state,” said Beck Ferguson, owner of Mansfield Mushroom Co. “When the vendors are happy, the customers are automatically happy.”
But in describing this farmers market as one of the best, Ferguson was referring to much more than the location. He said strong organization, the market’s variety and balance of products, and good communication are keys to its success.
Randy George, who is also president of the board, expands on that, noting that the market strictly enforces two requirements that set it apart from some others: Vendors have to grow, produce, or create what they sell, and the owners of the businesses are required to be at the market at least 50 percent of the time.
George said this means that farmers, bakers, artists, and crafts people need to create goods pretty much from scratch, and there is a preference for using raw materials that originate in Vermont, as much as possible. Having the owner present eliminates very large businesses from competing with small, local businesses — many of which are one- or two-person operations. Both requirements make the shopping experience more local and more personal.
When Janet Stewart began selling her photography and greeting cards at the market about 2003, she was one of those one-person businesses. A few years later she married Ray Shatney, whose century-old family farm had the oldest registered highland herd in the United States. They decided to expand what they did at their farm and began selling beef at the market in 2007; their nascent business, Greenfield Highland Beef, quickly caught on.
“The Montpelier market was critical for us,” she said, noting that selling there was the foundation for what grew into a larger business. “People started to ask for our meat at the coop and in restaurants.”
Like many vendors, Jenny Vascotto, who with her husband Giacomo Vascotto owns Trenchers Farmhouse, credits “especially strong connections with the community” for the success of the market. “Locals come week-in, week-out,” she said. She noted that both vendors and customers appreciate the variety of high-quality local food.
The Vascottos specialize in Italian pastas and sauces, and they call Trenchers Farmhouse, “Vermont’s Italian farm-to-table gastronomia.” Jenny was one of several vendors who said they do some of their own food shopping (or bartering) at the market. “You can go through the market and create an entire menu,” she said.
Over at Berlin’s Perrin Farm — an eighth generation family farm specializing in healthy and ethically raised chicken, pork, and beef — Krysta Zabriskie agrees. “One of my absolute favorite things is going around to shop with other vendors.”
All of the milk used to make the cheese at Stan Biasini and Debora Wickart’s family business, Mt. Mansfield Creamery, comes from their own cows. Stan credited the flavor and freshness of local foods with keeping customers and said that people really like knowing where their food comes from. “You can talk to the person who made the cheese. You can talk to the farmer who had their hands in the dirt.”
Beck Ferguson said his wild and cultivated mushroom business is successful both because of the climate and because of the attitudes of Vermonters. Vermonters are used to seeing mushrooms in the woods, at coops, and in restaurants, which makes them open to trying new ones.
Every veteran vendor I spoke with said their business was notably up from past years (one said it is more than double over 2019) and every vendor — new or old — was excited about how well the market is doing. They all love the new location, and even without being asked, almost everyone brought up the dedication and skills of manager Keri Ryan, who has been in that role since August 2019. John Snell, volunteer extraordinaire and community representative on the Capital City Farmers Market board, got several unsolicited shout-outs, too.
Who did Ryan want to thank? She wanted to make sure everyone knows that the National Life Group, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, and the Vermont State Employees Credit Union gave the market grants that are helping to upgrade its technology, to pay for live music each week, and to host several special events, such as the recent strawberry festival.
“It’s encouraging to see the community come out to support farmers,” said Ben Zabriskie, emphasizing half of the symbiotic relationship that makes this 44-year-old farmers market an ongoing success. It’s a win-win: The farmers serve the community, and the community appreciates the farmers.