Anyone who regularly goes to the Capital City Farmers Market probably recognizes John Snell, a tall, outgoing man who usually has a camera hanging around his neck. He greets people and walks around talking with shoppers and vendors. He clearly loves being there. What most people don’t know is that Snell has been going to the market for over 40 years.
“I’ve shopped there since 1979, when it was at the Washington County Courthouse parking lot and green,” Snell said, adding that at the market he gets fresher food and gets to hand-select what he wants. Plus, he gets to support local agriculture. “At the farmers market, everything we pay goes straight to the farmer.”
In addition to coordinating volunteer greeters who count shoppers and answer questions at the entrance, Snell serves as a community representative on the market’s board of directors and takes photographs for the market’s website.
“There’s so much going on. I’ve spent time just taking pictures of nonmoving vegetables, but then you get kids and dogs and families,” Snell said. “I love getting people shopping so you can see them with money in their hand, handing it to the farmer, and the farmer handing them back vegetables. It’s really dynamic.”
Snell knows many regular shoppers and most of the vendors, including Lila Humphries-LePage, the seventh generation on the LePage family farm (started in 1865) on Beckley Hill in Barre Town. Lila’s parents, Alan LePage and Jeni Humphries, founded the market back in 1977. LePage was the board’s first president, and Humphries served as president a few years later.
“I remember Lila when she was three years old,” Snell said. “She was there at the stand selling little clay rocks and flowers.”
“I was quite the little entrepreneur,” Humphries-LePage said. “I definitely grew up there, in part, knowing a lot of the vendors, some of whom are still there. It was very much a part of my community growing up, and it still is to this day — which is great.” Humphries-LePage recalled selling necklaces that she had made, playing with other kids at the market, and hanging out by the family’s vegetable stand.
“I helped myself to whatever we were selling,” she said with a laugh. “I snacked on the produce. I remember being scolded by a customer one time because I was taking blueberries off the top of berry baskets.”
Humphries-LePage, now 24, started running the family farm and the stand at the market three years ago along with her partner Cameron Cahill. This year she joined the board that her parents helped start.
Asked about the upcoming market season, manager Keri Ryan glows with enthusiasm. The market will again be at the popular location in the large parking lot next to the tax department building on State Street every Saturday from May 7 to October 29. The market has expanded, featuring 70 approved vendors, including new farmers, craft and art vendors, and prepared food vendors. The previously open space near the entrance will be filled with two more rows of vendors.
Instead of being in the back, musicians will now be by the tax department building and up in the front, Ryan said. The events committee has planned a full schedule that includes popular past events, such as the strawberry festival and corn roast, and some new ones, such as an herbalist day and a tomato day. Although arts, crafts, and prepared foods are important parts of the market, the bylaws make sure that more than anything it remains a farmers market: at least 60% of the vendors must be farmers.
While Humphries-LePage and Snell are proof of how attached people can become to the market, it thrives because of the ongoing influx of new vendors and shoppers.
Rose Thackeray and Emily Virzi of the Union Brook Farm in Northfield are among those enthusiastic newer vendors. They sell pasture-raised chicken and duck eggs, as well as whole chickens. This summer they’re adding several types of flavored sausages, including spicy Szechuan and bacon jalapeño — “Flavors that you can’t find anywhere else.”
During the winter market, they added what Virzi called their “hyper local breakfast sandwiches.” Thackeray explained that they use their own eggs, freshly baked English muffins from Birchgrove Baking (baked that morning!), cheese from the von Trapp Farmstead in Waitsfield, and spinach and mushrooms from fellow vendors LePage Farm and Mount Mansfield Mushrooms.
Thackeray said that people like seeing the sandwiches cooked right in front of them and that 10 to 15 vendors skip breakfast and get sandwiches from them instead. Thackeray and Virzi both emphasized how big the market is as a social event.
“People go to the market and they will hang out for more than an hour sometimes,” Virzi said. ‘You’ll see people getting a sandwich and walking around, taking multiple laps. That’s a great way to build community.”
Community is also important to Beckey Thompson, who with her husband Albert Thompson runs Autumn Rayne Acres in Berlin. Thompson was a part-time vendor last summer, stayed through the winter market, and is becoming a full-time vendor.
“I’m really excited about being a full-time vendor this year,” she said. “Getting out there and engaging with my community … is important to me.”
Thompson, who recently joined the market board, said she and her husband are committed to sustainable farming and reducing their carbon footprint by shopping locally and using manure from their animals rather than buying commercial fertilizer. In addition to selling lamb, mutton, and whole chickens, this year they have added quail, turkey, and root vegetables. They also sell yarn and wool products.
While the majority of vendors are full time (every week), some come less often. Winter regulars will be happy to know that the Paprika Catering Company of Waterbury, a very popular vendor that sold empanadas this past winter, will return for the summer season; however, Paprika Catering will be there only once a month. Jacqueline de Achaval, who owns the company with Jennifer McCabe, said their small business has been growing fast, and at this point they don’t have enough time to do more once a month. Although de Achaval was born in Iowa, she grew up in Argentina and learned to make empanadas there.
While a few vendors are part time, you can rest assured that Lila Humphries-LePage and Cameron Cahill will be there every week, just as Lila and the LePage family farm have been for decades.
“The market is in a lovely space and we’re grateful to be there,” Humphries-LePage said. “We’re looking forward to a really rockin’ year.”
Local Farmers Markets
While many communities would like to have a market or have tried to, there’s a chicken-and-egg riddle to having a successful one: The market needs to draw enough shoppers to make it worthwhile for vendors to participate, but it can’t draw shoppers unless it has enough vendors. If all works out, you get a successful market that sells both chickens and eggs and no one needs to figure out which came first.
—T.M.Barre Farmers Market