Like many Lebanon residents, the summer Lebanon Farmers’ Market holds a lot of personal meaning for me. For years it meant that, on Thursdays when he came home from work, my dad would bring pies. The “Pie Lady” (as we called her) sold pies at her tent in Colburn Park. They were intricate, beautiful things; often the buttery crust was molded and layered in the shape of leaves. When the Pie Lady moved her operation to Norwich, it was a tragedy in our household, a testament to how the farmers’ market and what it offered had ingrained itself in the weekly rhythm of our lives.
Lebanon itself has this steady rhythm. Every week the town congregates in one place for one activity. The rhythm can be heard in the chatter of voices from the usually silent park, and in music from the Lebanon Recreation Department’s Front Porch Concert Series. Even the title of that concert series reflects the market’s pace: the front porch, a place to unwind, slow down, and watch the world go by.
When I started talking to market regulars and newcomers alike, it was almost surprising how much people enjoyed this slowed-down quality it has. Don Cann, co-owner and vendor for Cobb Hill Frozen Yogurt, has been at the market for a decade and has observed that “people stay at Lebanon’s market far more than other farmers’ markets. It’s a much slower pace, and people spend hours here listening to the music. It’s more of a social event…the market links people together.”
Don says the market has offered his businesses a valuable marketing tool and connection to his customers, as well. For the first seven of his 10 years on the green, Don sold elk meat from Meriden. He sold the meat for customers to use at home, but the market gave him the opportunity to cook up elk burgers so that interested (and perhaps, like I was, wary) customers could try his product – something not widely found on grocery store shelves. Now Don’s frozen yogurt business at the market can send customers to the supermarket. “It’s a good way for them to experience something new and then go buy it in stores,” he said.
Don estimated that there are about 45 total vendors at the farmers’ market every year, with about 30 regular vendors and some more seasonal offerings. Market organizer Amy Eberhardt was enthusiastic about this year’s set of vendors. “It’s a place of local commerce and local agriculture,” she emphasized. Molly Whitaker, a Lebanon High School 2012 alum who works at the market, agreed. “It makes me proud to be a part of the community, to see people eating locally and supporting local businesses.”
Amy and Molly, among other market workers, are hoping to make eating locally more accessible for more people. Their “main project this year” is their Veggie Dollars program. Eligible customers using EBT cards at the market can double the value of their dollars spent up to $10, and the second half of their doubled money can only be used to buy “locally grown, fresh farm produce.” So for $10 worth of food, EBT card users get another $10 worth of healthy, sustainable veggies and fruits.
“Some markets get the reputation of being too expensive,” Amy said. “Our Veggie Dollar program makes it easier to buy items not normally available on a limited budget.” The program hits at the heart of the market’s benefits: offering food and a comforting place to experience it. Molly gets inspired by “families coming together for dinner… which might not usually happen.”
Molly is one of many workers trying to make the program a success; back from college at the University of Richmond, she spends her Thursday evenings promoting Veggie Dollars and related programs around the market. When I spoke to her, she was planning a “food education seminar” for both Veggie Dollar users and general market-goers.
“Some people don’t know how to use the food here,” she explained, “so we’re going to use some recipes and show them.” She wanted to focus on less traditional foods so that, just as Veggie Dollars gave customers access to a broader range of local foods, her seminar can bring eager learners access to a broader range of food knowledge.
Food is a large draw for the market. Families go to the market for a dinner out. Lebanon High senior Talia Wenig said that “coming to the market offers me a sense of variety that I don’t normally see in town.” In just one block, on one evening, market attendees can buy a crêpe with goat cheese, Pad Thai, Pakastani food, jerk chicken with plantains, or locally pickled vegetables. They can sample dozens of varieties of jams at one tent, and pick between dozens of different handcrafted earrings at another.
The Lebanon Police Department offered variety of its own when it hosted its Fifth Annual Marge Hammond Memorial Bike Auction fundraiser. Intrigued bidders made a circle around one officer while he shouted amounts for the bikes, like a true auctioneer. After each one sold, a nearby woman seated on a bench would look bemused and shout over to the winner: “Make sure you wear a helmet!” Luckily, the department had helmets on hand for winners who didn’t have their own.
It was while I was watching the spectacle of the bike auction that I saw a young man sitting on a bench, looking around at the market and taking notes. Looking for an interview, I sat down next to him and asked him what he was doing. “I’m an Anthropology student over at Dartmouth,” sophomore Rory Page told me. He had an assignment to attend a public event and record what he saw. We decided to trade notes, and I rattled off what I observed about the market.
He asked me: “Do you know a lot of these people who attend the market?” I looked around and nodded. “My friends gather here every week,” I told him, “and I can recognize others simply because I come so much.”
“Is there anything I shouldn’t do? That people would get angry at me for?” he inquired. I thought for a while about this, and about all of the people I had talked to who valued the market for its sense of community, its sense of slowing down and spending time together.
“No,” I replied, “I think we’re a pretty friendly bunch here.”