Westford Farmers’ Market closes after twelve-year run
Founder cites plateauing popularity, government restrictions
June 18, 2018
After twelve years of filling the Town Common on sunny Tuesday afternoons, the Farmers’ Market had become a summer staple in Westford. However, on April 25, 2018, the Westford Farmers’ Market announced on its Facebook page that it would not be continuing into the 2018 season.
Founder and organizer Gloria Tu Gilbert also stepped down from the Board of Sustainable Westford, leaving the market’s future up in the air.
The reasons for the Farmers’ Market’s closing are varied and complex. For one, the market was not doing well enough to warrant the effort and quality that Gilbert and others were putting into it. An organic food boom in recent years has actually negatively impacted local organic markets, as fresh food is quickly becoming available at a lower price and at greater convenience. Finally, Gilbert cites an unsupportive town government, claiming that restrictions set by the Board of Selectmen stopped the Farmers’ Market from reaching its full potential.
“[I always thought the market] would go one of two ways. It would die a slow death because there’s so much competition, or it would be the only one left standing. I always thought it would be the only one left standing, and that I would have the strength to see that through,” Gilbert said.
THE HISTORY OF THE FARMERS’ MARKET
Gilbert founded the Farmers’ Market in 2006 when she was chair of the Outreach Committee at the local Unitarian Church. The minister gave her $300 of money to be used for nonprofits, and the committee decided to use it for a Farmers’ Market on the Town Common.
Gilbert, who has a background in landscape design and had previously worked on the common’s landscaping, naturally fell into the role of organizing the market.
“A lot of this just made sense for me, bringing a farmers’ market to the town common as a landscape architect. I mean, it’s all about building places, spaces, and having tents and flats and all of that, and community involvement. To me, it was pretty much second nature to do it,” she said.
The market was met with strong support from the town government, and the process of approval was completed within 45 days, a remarkably short period according to Gilbert.
The Westford Farmers’ Market was one of the first in the area, preceding Chelmsford, Tyngsboro, and other towns. As such, for the first three years, the market was extremely popular. However, as the novelty began to die down, so did attendance.
Even though the popularity of the Farmers’ Market reached a plateau, Gilbert believes the quality of the market has gone up significantly over the past few years. This was largely due to better work by student volunteers, who have been increasingly effective and motivated.
“The last couple of years, […] I got some volunteers that really wanted to dedicate themselves to the market,” Gilbert said. “And we made the market even better from the first year, the third year, the eighth year.”
In recent years, the Farmers’ Market had reached an equilibrium: while its popularity was not skyrocketing, it certainly was not falling, and student interest in the market was in fact growing.
Gilbert acknowledged that on the outside, nothing seemed to be wrong.
“People probably want to know — why in God’s name did it stop?” she said.
REASONS BEHIND THE CLOSING
Organic boom hurts local markets
Recent years have seen a newfound craze for organic food. While this would seem to promote the growth of farmers’ markets, it has actually hurt their sales in unprecedented ways.
All-natural grocery shoppers would previously have had only farmers’ markets to turn to in order to buy fresh food, but now, they can choose from a plethora of organic selections at supermarkets or even get their own CSA, which allows an individual to subscribe to a share of a harvest from a local farm.
As the availability of organic produce increases, market sales have been falling across the region. Customers seek them out for social purposes and that results in a lack of interest in the farmers themselves.
Whole Foods, a supermarket that specifically sells organic food, opened in May 2016 at the Westford Valley Marketplace, and Market Basket opened an organic produce section as well.
“I think the fact that people can get fresh fruits and vegetables seven days a week, [at] eight in the morning till nine at night, it’s a lot harder for farmers’ markets to compete,” Zac Cataldo, a member of the Board of Sustainable Westford, said.
In past years, when organic supermarkets were not as popular, the market was doing well. For example, the Market Basket strike in 2014 decreased the store’s business, and since Whole Foods had not opened then, the Farmers’ Market experienced what Cataldo referenced as a “boom year”.
Now, the market cannot compete with regular availability of organic produce, resulting in a decrease in sales for the vendors.
“There were lots of vendors saying ‘Gosh, it’s just not quite enough to support me,” Cataldo said.
Gilbert does not emphasize the impact of organic selections on the closing of the market this year. However, she did note that because the quality of farmers’ markets can be unpredictable while the quality of supermarkets is standard and ensured, organic shoppers are drawn to a location where the food has a uniformly good reputation.
“[Lower-quality markets] ruin the reputation of farmers market. It just dumbs down the quality and [then] who cares anymore,” Gilbert said.
The widespread availability of organic produce means that farmers’ markets have lost some of their unique qualities.
“I mean, [with] the boxes you can order, you know, meals that are fresh and organic, […] there’s so many different ways to get organic CSAs,” Gilbert said.
However, nothing can replace the community aspect of farmers’ markets, say both Gilbert and Cataldo, and any future attempts to reinstate the Farmers’ Market in Westford would emphasize that.
“There’s plenty of things that farmers’ markets can do that Whole Foods can’t because it’s local and because these farmers are able to bring in all kinds of neat things,” Cataldo said.
Traffic and turbulence
In the comments section of the Facebook post announcing the closing of the market, many community members were making their own guesses as to what was wrong with the market. Most of the comments boiled down to the same two reasons: traffic and parking.
“I would have stopped by but there was never any place to park,” wrote Patricia McDonald.
The most liked comment on the post, written by Jacqueline Dureault, read:
“I think the bigger issue was where and when it was located. The common does not have accessible parking for vendors or patrons. Let’s face it traffic is a god awful nightmare there on a good day. 2-6 is also a high commute time. Why not move the farmers market to a new location?”
Members of the community also claimed that the market caused traffic in the common, and since it is often used during high commute times, the traffic caused by cars and pedestrians is a major inconvenience to other members of the community.
However, Gilbert argued that the traffic and parking issue was largely a myth. The false information spread through blogging a few years ago and has perpetuated itself since then.
“Even to this day you go there Tuesday at five-thirty, six o’clock it’s bumper to bumper. It’s not the Farmers’ Market,” Gilbert said. “There were some real negative people, probably commuters that lived on Boston Road, that just, you know, there were some real negative remarks all the time just generated out of the blue.”
Town government steps in
Gilbert believes that the impact of the traffic and parking situation was worsened by the actions of the town government. Not only could the government have helped dispel the parking myth, but members of the Board of Selectmen were directly opposing the market, she says.
According to Gilbert, town support could have made the key difference in expanding the market to a profitable level and propelling its growth. However, limitations from the town government stifled her ambitions for the market’s future and contributed to her growing sense of exhaustion and frustration.
For example, the Board of Selectmen limited the number of vendors to twenty-four due to space restrictions and keeping the market less packed. Gilbert believes this limit was unreasonable and prevented Westford from competing with other, larger markets.
“I’d be sitting there with all those police guys, I’d be standing at the Market with Captain So-and-So, and I’m like, ‘Do you see all those parking spaces? Tell me that there’s a problem. Tell me’,” she said.
Additionally, she explains that the town could have made additional provisions and accommodations to promote the growth of the farmers’ market, rather than do the minimum to keep it functioning.
“They could be so helpful in that way. So many other towns I know — I mean, Acton closes down an entire street for its Farmers’ Market. It’s not inconceivable at all,” she said.
However, Chair of the Board of Selectmen, Scott Hazelton, takes a much different view. He asserts that in his time on the Board, all of the members have been fully supportive of the farmers’ market and only limited what was absolutely necessary.
The fact that the farmers’ market is located at the epicenter of the town presents the largest issue. If, says Hazelton, the town was to shut down the area around the common every week, Boston Road and Lincoln Street would be severely compromised.
“In a perfect world, you would close Lincoln Street. It makes it easier for vendors to unload, it makes it easier for customers to come in, but the problem is […] it makes the traffic worse, it wouldn’t be a practical solution,” he said.
When it comes to space restrictions such as the vendor limit, Hazelton explains that the police and town government just keep an eye on the market to ensure safety and that they have not been trying to limit the Farmers’ Market’s growth as a result.
“[There hasn’t been any concern] in my five years [on the Board], there was never anyone stressing that [the market] should be anything other than what it was, and its success, and before that, I really don’t know,” he said.
Gilbert did mention one figure in the town government who was supportive of the Farmers’ Market: Town Manager Jodi Ross. According to Gilbert, she stood her ground against the police and fire departments in order to ensure that the market continued.
Ross agreed that she had been enthusiastic about working with the market, but defended the Board of Selectmen. She reasoned that they are the ones in charge of land distribution and safety requirements, so they naturally have to be more stringent in their outlook.
“[The Board of Selectmen has] been supportive of the farmers’ market, but they also have to pay attention to public safety requirements and traffic requirements […] they have a bigger picture to look at,” Ross said.
She also emphasizes that had the town known how unhappy Gilbert was with the state of affairs, they would have been willing to listen and accommodate her.
“We were not aware that [Gilbert] decided to discontinue the market. We found out after the fact. We certainly would have worked with her or perhaps transferred it to another entity to oversee, had we known that it was not going to occur this summer,” Ross said.
Ross was also unaware that Gilbert had stepped down from the Board of Sustainable Westford.
Overworked and underappreciated
To Gilbert, the crux of the problem with the Farmers’ Market was that the turnout was simply not enough to warrant the effort being put in by her and other volunteers.
As the student volunteers became more involved over the past few years, the quality of the market naturally went up, but the community did not respond in kind.
“Out of 23,000 people, how many are here? […] We must have done that little dance a thousand times,” Gilbert said.
“While it [the market] is going on, it’s easy to forget how wonderful it is until it’s gone,” Cataldo said.
At this spring’s Apple Blossom Festival, Gilbert was named the Kiwanis Person of the Year for her work in the community. While Gilbert was happy to be appreciated, she reflected that it may not have been worth her personal sacrifice.
Gilbert explains that she would not have done anything differently regarding the market, seeing as she met her personal goal to make the market viable and high-quality. However, met with resistance rather than accommodation from the town government and indifference rather than enthusiasm from the community, she was forced to ask herself why she was continuing to pour her life into the Farmers’ Market.
“Was it the right decision? I don’t really know, but I would say I am happier,” she said.
A LOCAL IMPACT
The vendors who were set to be at this year’s market were notified of the cancellation in March, not long before the market was set to begin. According to Cataldo, the vendors were upset but did not disagree with the motives for the cancellation.
“A lot of them were really looking forward to this year’s Farmers’ Market, but a lot of them did understand that what we’re trying to do is make it better,” Cataldo said.
Bagel Alley’s first market was the Westford Farmers’ Market, beginning at the end of the first year the market ran. The business ended up having a presence in seven other markets and also opened a store.
“It grew our business [in Nashua] over the last ten years because people couldn’t get bagels after Tuesday, [and] they want them during the week, during the winter when there’s no Farmers’ Market, they would come to the store,” Brett Fleckner said.
They were notified of the closing at the end of March, which disappointed the store. Bagel Alley was looking to leave some markets, but Westford was not one of them, so the cancellation led to some changes in their decisions.
“I didn’t know it was coming, it was kind of a shock. Everybody was shocked,” Fleckner said.
According to Fleckner, recently the market began to have more crafts than produce, even though markets are meant for produce, but at the same time, he appreciated the variety.
“It was diversified, you know, we were the only bagel shop,” Fleckner said.
Although Fleckner did not think the appreciation for the market went down, he saw a decrease in both vendors and customers in more recent years. He believes that if the market comes back, it should be on weekends since he has not seen a decline in customers on weekend markets. However, he thinks the Westford Common is the best place to host the market.
Fleckner said that if the market was to return in the future, the Bagel Alley would be a part of it.
The closing of the market also impacted student volunteers, who showed up weekly to help set up and run it. One important volunteer was junior Eshan Satav, who was set to be the senior market manager for this year’s season.
This year would have been Satav’s third year as a volunteer. He became one of six market managers along with a group of seniors during his second year, and he was going to be the oldest, most experienced manager this year.
“I oversaw what other volunteers did. I made sure everything was running smoothly,” Satav said.
Satav was told that the market would not run around March.
“I was pretty sad. Not only would I lose my volunteering area, but also I really liked going to the farmers’ market, and a lot of the places that are vendors here are coming around from other places in the state so I’ll probably never get to go to those places,” Satav said.
Satav enjoyed being able to interact with vendors and friends, all of which led to a feeling of community.
“It really brought everyone together, because every Tuesday, you would see […] everyone from Westford really, they would all come together and meet up at the Farmers’ Market. We’d talk, people would buy stuff, and it really brought the town closer together,” Satav said.
Sophomore Neha Kotagiri was just getting started as a Farmers’ Market volunteer. After volunteering in her freshman year, she was looking forward to seeing where the market would go in the future.
“I didn’t actually need more [volunteer hours], but I was still really looking forward to doing [the market] this year,” she said.
Gilbert found working with her student volunteers to be the most enjoyable part of organizing the Farmers’ Market, and it was bittersweet to know that she would no longer be able to interact with them.
“There are so many good parts about the market, but honestly, to me, it was really the students. I love the students. You know, like I’ve said, that team evolved throughout time, every year is something different,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert’s Farmers’ Market is permanently discontinued, as she has stepped down from the Board of Sustainable Westford and is moving back into landscape design. However, Gilbert explained that once chosen, the new chair of the Board may choose to take on the project, and Ross mentioned a possibility of someone from the Agricultural Committee taking the market on.
Gilbert will not be involving herself with future seasons of the market so that others can bring new visions to the table.
“I kind of need to let someone else take the reins, and I wish them luck, I think that they’ll do a great job, and I think I need to step away for them to do a really good job,” Gilbert said.
As of now, the Board of Sustainable Westford wants to take a pause from having the market and reevaluate how it is run. The Board is looking to get the community’s input to decide what they should keep or change, including aspects such as venue or what day of the week it is held.
“It’s very hard while you’re doing the Farmers’ Market to improve it,” Cataldo said.
According to Cataldo, the variety of vendors made a significant impact on the popularity of the market, and the limitations set by the Board of Selectmen have had a tangible effect on the market’s success. In future seasons, he hopes to either move to a more accommodating location or talk to the Selectmen to increase the vendor limit on the Town Common. A location that is being considered is the parcel of land across the new fire station on Boston Road, which is solely meant for agricultural purposes and would be able to hold more stalls.
“I think ultimately, we needed more vendors to make the market more viable because each vendor brings their own unique thing to the market,” Cataldo said.
Ross believes holding the market on the Town Common has its own unique charm, and that taking it away from the town center would decrease its visibility.
“Personally, I like it in the Town Common […] [but] I’m not the decision-maker [of the venue],” she said.
The Board of Selectmen are the decision-makers in this situation, as they decide land zoning and usage. Although Hazelton assures that he would support the market in any future endeavors, he is not sure where potential other locations would be. He mentioned the field next to Abbott School has been discussed previously as a possible venue, but football practices begin there in the late summer.
“Well, we have to make sure that no one is using that land, or that if there is conflict, we can mitigate it,” he said.
Fleckner explains that the market’s natural place is on the town common, adding that he believes it would not last for long in other locations.
However, he does support changing the day of the market to a weekend date. While he has seen a drop in attendance at the Westford Farmers’ Market, he has not seen a similar drop on weekends.
A strategic planning retreat for Westford will be held on Thursday, June 21, at Kimball Farms, where the whole town will be invited. The Farmers’ Market will have a table as well so people can share their thoughts or ideas on the market in the future.
At the end of the day, the market is not made possible by improved traffic or the location, but by the support of the town government and community. Gilbert believed those key aspects were missing, and that led to a loss of direction for the project she had dedicated over a decade of her life to.
“You build something that really you’re passionate about, it is successful, you absolutely love it,” Gilbert said. “And you- you get to the point where you know, there’s nothing really wrong with it except […] you love it [but] it’s kind of like, where’s it going to go?”
Update 6/23/18: A section mentioning a specific but unnamed Selectman was removed in order to avoid hearsay and rumors. The final paragraphs were modified for clarity.