From its early years hosting a few loyal vendors to today’s thriving marketplace with more than 40 booths, the Lebanon Farmers’ Market has become a genuine, year-round Upper Valley institution.

I recently visited the Lebanon Farmers’ Market in a steady downpour, intent on buying local corn for dinner and to see who I might run into.

While the rain inspired fewer customers to visit the market, I appreciated having the extra time to speak with the vendors. I ended up buying not only corn on the cob, but homemade cookies, freshly popped kettle corn, and a hand thrown pottery bowl.

I often eat dinner at the market, with its diverse and healthy selection of prepared foods originating in Pakistan, France, Egypt, Africa, Greece, Argentina, and Thailand. And delicious wood-fired pizzas with fresh veggies are made to order – the choices to eat well at the Lebanon Farmers’ Market are virtually unlimited.

The social aspect of shopping at farmers’ markets is often overlooked, but talking directly to the region’s local fruit and vegetable growers, artisans, and international cast of prepared food vendors is the primary reason I like to shop at farmers’ markets. I visited with local vendors selling maple syrup products, frozen yogurt, artisan cheese and soaps, and perennial plants.

Founded in 2003, the Lebanon Farmers’ Market was initially funded by grants from the Valley Food and Farm program at Vital Communities and the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture in collaboration with the City of Lebanon Recreation and Parks Department. The market was intentionally scheduled for Thursdays to avoid conflicts with the Norwich and Enfield farmers’ markets, a strategy which also maximized vendor participation.

Within several years, farmers’ markets were started in Hanover, Claremont, and Newport, aligning with a USDA-calculated national trend of a 200 percent increase in the number of farmers’ markets over the past two decades. This translates to more than 5,275 farmers’ markets currently operating in the U.S. today, with more than 60 operating across New Hampshire.

While many new markets operate with the vendors taking turns at scheduling, negotiating contracts, and accounting, Lebanon city officials supported hiring a part-time market coordinator from the beginning so the vendors could focus on generating a loyal customer base.

Photo courtesy of Nicolas Doak

Photo courtesy of Nicolas Doak

Decisions on where to hold the market (Colburn Park in downtown Lebanon), vendor fees, insurance, promotion, and market rules were well researched to create a successful, sustainable market. Even the definition of a farmers’ market was explored, which suggested that a true farmers’ market consists of roughly 60 percent agricultural products, and 40 percent in the art, craft, and prepared food categories.

If you are looking for organic produce, the cost of buying organic food directly from a local farmer is generally less expensive than at the grocery store. A report by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Vermont compared the cost of selected organic vegetables purchased at a farmers’ market with the same organic vegetables purchased from a co-op and conventional grocery store. Every fruit and vegetable compared was less expensive except potatoes. This makes a great case for buying vegetables and fruits at the farmers’ market and freezing them for use throughout the winter for long-term savings on your grocery bill – not to mention the comfort of knowing where your food comes from.

Amy Miller, the market’s longtime coordinator, has introduced several innovations that make it convenient for customers to buy market goods. A program supporting EBT, or Electronic Benefit Transfer, serves customers needing public assistance and provides the opportunity to purchase fresh produce. No cash? No problem. You can swipe your debit or credit card with a vendor to get ‘market coins’ worth $5 each to spend throughout the market. Vendors give you cash back in change, and turn in their coins throughout the summer to receive reimbursement.

One initiative that took several years to achieve, but has been wildly successful, is a partnership with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center to operate a satellite market on site at the hospital. Four Upper Valley farms share the distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables to hospital employees on “Fresh Veggie Fridays,” with plans to offer cooking classes in how to use the vegetables seasonally.

Most markets have a community booth available to nonprofit organizations that want to promote their good works, and Lebanon’s market is no exception. I spoke briefly with Frank Gould, who attends almost every market to tell the story of the Mascoma River Greenway, a planned bicycle and pedestrian pathway connecting Lebanon and West Lebanon. Frank patiently recites the goals of the project, shows visitors a map depicting the route of the greenway, and signs people up to volunteer for fundraising, trail clearing, public relations, and other tasks.

The Lebanon Farmers’ Market is a great place to bring the entire family, including kids of all ages. Live entertainment is offered each week, and AVA Gallery often has art activities available for children. The community atmosphere is infectious as people bring blankets to spread out near the music to enjoy a market picnic. Children meet their friends old and new and dance or just giggle. After the market closes, there is live music in the historic band shell at the other end of the park.

In an interview with the coordinators of the Upper Valley Healthy Eating Partnership, a program of the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth, Amy Miller spoke of the Lebanon Farmers’ Market success.

Lebanon Farmers’ Market

Thursdays 4-7 p.m., Colburn Park
Through September 26
LebanonFarmersMarket.org

“We are fortunate to have farmers and artisans throughout the Upper Valley who are willing to bring their goods to market,” said Miller. “The trend is definitely catching on and each year more and more towns are hosting markets. These events offer not only fresh food, crafts and entertainment, but create a central gathering place for friends and neighbors. For children, the markets are a dynamic incubator for exploring fresh local products, meeting local farmers, and appreciating the cyclical nature of farming—lessons to last a lifetime.”

To further ink its position as a place where the ‘cool’ people go, the market has more than 800 ‘likes’ on its Facebook page, and favorable comments on food-specific websites and blogs including Fodor’s, Chow, US Travel, and Offbeat Eats.

So join other ‘buy local’ converts and check out the Lebanon Farmers’ Market. Consider choosing a rainy day – the vendors will appreciate the business, and you’ll be supporting a uniquely local institution.

By Cindy Heath
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