WILLIAMSTOWN -- Vendors at the Williamstown Farmers Market are looking back on one of the most successful seasons since the markets began in 1981.
Last Saturday, Judy Turbin, co-owner of Baby Cakes bakery, was enjoying the nimble improvisations of clarinetist Anderson Paes and chatting with customers at her stand in the parking lot at the base of Spring Street. Paes was seated in front a red vintage pickup adorned with crisp new farmers market tote bags.
The sunny, late-summer weather had the market bustling by around 9:30 a.m.
"The market has a new atmosphere this year, and we're seeing more people," Turbin said. "Pretty much everybody has a tent and has worked on their marketing to make things more appealing and more attractive."
This year's vendors offer a greater variety of products, including baked goods and craft items. In the past, Turbin said, vendors had resisted those changes, fearing they would hurt business. But she said market organizers had adopted the philosophy that "a rising tide lifts all ships."
Turbin said that in recent years the market had suffered from a lack of organization.
"It was just a helter-skelter kind of a situation," she said. "Anybody could come. Even though we were all supposed to approve things, it never happened. We just needed some different leadership.
The Williamstown Agricultural Commission adopted a charter last fall providing guidance for farmers markets. Following the charter, the community formed a farmers market steering committee with five or six members. Anne Hogeland of Berkshire Mountain Pottery, a market vendor since 2010, co-chairs the committee, along with Bill Stinson of Peace Valley Farm, one of the market's first vendors.
The committee adopted bylaws, rules and procedures for how vendors may apply, she said, and helps "to give a good organizational structure for a lasting market. And that has worked out very well. We've had new vendors applying all summer long." She added that even the longer-term vendors had welcomed the changes.
On Thursday, Sept. 5, Hogeland provided the Agricultural Commission with an update on the committee's progress under the new charter. In addition to having received generally positive feedback regarding the market's new vendors, products and atmosphere, she also sensed "that there is a real building of community."
"I think people are finding that spending a good part of their Saturday morning at the market is just a lovely thing to do," she said. "We're also seeing new individuals and families locating to this area making a regular practice of coming to the market every Saturday. So that's really exciting."
She pointed out that with the addition of new products, people who already belong to local CSAs (community-supported agriculture programs) can still find items at the farmers markets to complement their CSA shares.
A total of 26 vendors have attended this year's markets, Hogeland said, and new applications are coming in every week. Last week's market saw the addition of two new vendors: Shaker Hill Orchard and Wildflour Bakery.
Jennifer Civello, director of the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce, said that in July and August, volunteers at the town's new information booth interacted with 816 people, about 150 of whom had visited the booth during farmers market hours.
"The market has worked
Some vendors have been turned away, Hogeland said - a result of the committee's bylaws, which outline the types of vendors the committee envisions participating in the market, with priority given to agricultural-based and locally produced food items. Only about five of the 20 vendors that come to the market on a regular basis sell non-agricultural products, she said.
A survey conducted last year showed that the community is more interested in farm and food offerings than craft offerings, she said. "So the crafts that we have are functional crafts, as opposed to fine arts crafts or products - especially crafts that work well with the food offerings."
Wooden bowls from Peterman's Bowls and Boards, for example, can be used for salads made with local ingredients.
The committee's promotional efforts have focused in large part on the Internet, with an improved website, a weekly electronic newsletter and Facebook updates. Small framed signs also have been distributed to hotels and other businesses throughout the region. A sign at the top of Spring Street draws attention from Route 2.
Outside funding has helped sustain the recent improvements. A membership drive earlier in the season consisting of a single letter to members brought in $900. Turbin said she was amazed that so many people responded to the letter, "enabling us to pay for music every week and new signs."
The Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation also awarded a $1,500 Fund for Williamstown Grant to help cover weekly entertainment and promotional expenses. The grant helped pay for the new tote bags, designed by Berkshire Direct. (Members get a free tote bag when they sign up.)
Hogeland anticipates applying for a Fund for Williamstown Grant again next year, and possibly for one or two other grants that would be appropriate for the cause. Such funding is crucial for keeping the fees low for vendors, who can pay on a weekly or seasonal basis, she said.
The market also has gained the support of local organizations such as the Zilkha Center at Williams College and the Porches Inn in North Adams. At the meeting on Sept. 5, commissioner Sarah Gardner brought up the possibility of collaborating with Berkshire Grown for their annual holiday market in Williamstown.
The engagement of local groups is important, Hogeland said, as they have a stake in the community. Some of the food-related groups that support the farmers market as supporting or sustaining members also are customers of local farms, providing locally sourced menu items.
The Williamstown Farmers Market takes place Saturdays between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parking lot at the base of Spring Street. For more information, visit williamstownfarmersmarket.org.