Profile :: Market Value: In its third season, the Winter Farmers’ Market still thrives.

By most accounts, Rutland isn’t the most happening of places. The words “eclectic” and “bohemian” are rarely tossed around when characterizing our cultural assets. But spend a morning at the Rutland’s Winter Farmer’s Market (Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and you might want to reconsider. This is Rutland’s indie scene.

My first trip to the Rutland Winter Farmers’ Market was three years ago. My friend and I were filming a short documentary about local food and sustainable agriculture. Naturally, our investigation brought us there. It was March; the market was still in its infancy – sitting in a chilly, forsaken theatre behind The Co-op on Wales Street, you’d have been hard pressed to find it if you didn’t now what you were looking for.

As we ambled through the corridor at the back of The Co-op into the old Strand Theatre, I felt like I was being let in on a secret. Out of nowhere, we were confronted with a flurry of activity – lively music and the din of a bustling crowd. As someone who grew up in Rutland, I had never seen so much energy and excitement in one place.

To be sure, the Summer Market in Depot Park has its charms, and is every bit successful as its winter counterpart. However, in the Winter Market, there exists a unique energy that is due in large part to the character of the space as well as the opportunity for socialization it provides during the long winter months.

Every week farmers, bakers, crafters and artisans all from very different walks of life converge on the Strand to sell their products and incrementally contribute to the development of a thriving local, independent economy. Outside, WalMart sits just around the corner. The boxes south of the city are less than 2 miles away. But inside the Winter Market, it’s as if those threats exist on another planet. Here, vendor and consumer both acknowledge and appreciate the importance of their relationship.

And what of these scenesters? Who are these people who come back week after week? For many, the Market is a place for people to gather, socialize and network. From families to 20- and 30-somethings to older couples, the Market is a melting pot of age, class and culture.

“I’m meeting friends here, then grabbing some coffee,” one shopper says, noting that this is a common routine for her, “It’s just a great place to meet up and walk around.”

Indeed, “I’ll meet you at Market” has become a regular catchphrase in some circles.

Greg Cox, Winter Market manager and owner of Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland, is pleased with this development.

“The market has really helped the Rutland community get a sense of identity,” he says.

It’s no secret that Rutland suffers from what some might characterize as low self-esteem – at times, a negative, defeatist attitude that can be easy to fall into. Cox views the Market as one of the community’s most effective examples to dispel such attitudes.

“People come to the Market, and say I can’t believe this is happening in Rutland,” he says. “It really builds pride.”

And there’s much to be proud of. When it first opened in 2007, the Winter Market made Rutland the first community in Vermont to have a year-round, seamless market. Some of its more zealous champions even argue that it was the first in New England, though this fact has been more difficult to verify. Nonetheless, with more than 40 vendors, and in excess of $242,000 of sales last year, the Winter Market is an unequivocal success.

This past summer, Downtown Rutland underwent a market study. After a thorough analysis of the city’s trade area and market segmentation, a presentation was made to the community that provided a detailed roadmap for the economic future of Rutland. Figuring prominently into this vision was the Farmers’ Market. While most “in the know” were not surprised – the farm-to-city model has been discussed prominently for several years now – it was welcomed encouragement.

Cox, who is also the board president of the Rutland Area Farm & Food Link (RAFFL), is quick to point out the economic benefits of local agriculture.

“It has a multiplier effect: for every $1 spent on local food, $3 are generated,” he explains, “That’s huge potential for economic impact for the entire state.”

RAFFL executive director, Tara Kelly, echoes Cox’s view, stating, “In the Farmers’ Market we have a very visible opportunity to demonstrate that you actually can build a sustainable local food system.”

Kelly notes that as a result the success of the Winter Market, farmers are now growing with the winter in mind.

“We used to hit this seasonal cliff for local food,” she said, explaining that the Winter Market began as a test to see if there was interest in bridging that gap. “Farmers now know there’s a demand.”

Indeed, with a 52-week market there is a greater opportunity to connect people with fresh, local produce all year.

And the farmers have done just that. A quick lap around the Market will reveal no lack of variety or choices – squash, beets, carrots, and even greens through the entire winter.

“There’s something really great about knowing that you can get local spinach in the middle of December,” Jessie Wetherby, an employee of Boardman Hill Farm excitedly remarks.

While it might be odd to think that local spinach or beets can elicit such enthusiasm, it is just that sort of quirky energy that powers this market. There is an ineffable quality that keeps people coming back – something in the experience here that is clearly lacking in fluorescent efficiency of conventional food-shopping.

Let’s be honest; spinach isn’t that exciting. It is the participation in this act of community, however, that packs this drafty theatre every Saturday morning. It’s knowing that your being here matters, that it makes a difference, that the pennies you spend here actually stay here and directly benefit the vendor on the other side of that table.

Looking ahead, Cox sees nothing but growth for both the Winter and Summer markets.

“The Market is going to be the centerpiece for the local food movement in Rutland,” he states resolutely.

As RAFFL moves forward with plans for a local food processing facility and incubator farm, Cox, Kelly and many others are hopeful that the market will become a focal point for local food and economic success and revitalization throughout the Rutland region.

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