BRATTLEBORO -- The Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. And on Saturday the market members once again gathered to prepare the site for the upcoming season.
Just as it happened over the past four decades, farmers, craftspeople and food vendors got together in early April to rake leaves, dig post holes and make decisions about where vendors would set up for the market, which opens this year on May 3.
Every year in late April the market members meet to work, get their paperwork in order and have a potluck meal.
There was a sense of routine to the day as the members, some of whom have been at the market for more than 20 years, put in their clean-up hours in anticipation of the new season.
But even as the market enters its fifth decade this year's site day did have a different feel to it.
The Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market earlier this year purchased the former Planet Gas Station on Western Avenue.
In the next week or two the market is expected to close on the main 1.9 acre parcel of land, now owned by Green Mountain Power, along the Whetstone Brook where the vendors set up every Saturday.
Both land deals represent major milestones for the market.
The Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market has enjoyed sustained and steady growth over the past few years, riding the wave of locavore enthusiasm and the increasing popularity of fresh and healthy food.
Still, every season the market opened only hoping that its leases with three different land owners would be extended another year.
So as the Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market looks forward to its upcoming 40th season it does so knowing that its future is secured at its Western Avenue site long into the future.
"This is going to be a special year," said Market Manager Martha Miller. "Forty years is a long time and a lot of people have worked very hard to make this happen."
Just last week U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development announced that the market had been awarded a $6,300 grant to help purchase the GMP land, which was previously owned by Central Vermont Public Service and which GMP took over after merging with CVPS.
Miller said the market will use some of its savings to complete the GMP land purchase and the USDA grant will go a long way to help finalize the deal.
The almost two acre parcel includes about a third of the market's parking spaces, as well as the main market area where thousands of people visit every season to purchase plants, meat and produce, crafts and prepared food.
Along with celebrating its 40th anniversary all year, Miller said the market is going to introduce a fundraising campaign, including an online donation site, to help raise money for the land acquisitions.
"We have been working for years to acquire a permanent home for the Brattleboro Farmers' Market," said Market Board President Ra van Dyk. "Now thanks to a grant from USDA Rural Development, guidance from the local USDA staff, and the generosity of Green Mountain Power, we are in the process of securing a key piece of our market for future generations of farmers, craftspeople and the customers that they depend upon.
The market has been slowly moving toward complete ownership of the property it now rents ever since a 2006 feasibility report by Stevens & Associates determined that the Western Avenue parcels were in fact the best property in Brattleboro for the market.
The market did the study to address the fact that it was only renting the land, and to see if there was a better location in Brattleboro.
That report actually recommended against owning the land since most of the farmers and vendors were busy enough with their own businesses.
But over the past eight years the market Board of Directors began to embrace the idea of becoming land owners.
"Our main concern has always been site security," said Susan Dunning, a 25-year market vendor and a member of the Site Committee. "Every time the Planet Gas Station changed owners we would never know if we would have our parking lot. We've looked at other places over the years, but now we can say that we are definitely here."
In 2007 the market purchased what has become known as the Mallory lot, a 1.6 acre parcel on the south side of the Whetstone Brook that allowed the market to develop new parking spaces.
Then last year the market began eyeing the former Planet Gas Station on Western Avenue when it was put up for sale.
Plans are still in the works for the 1.1 acre, though the market said it will remove the gas tanks and canopy and develop about 30 new parking spaces.
The market, for now, is going to keep the existing convenience store for possible future use for a public rest room, storage, or even a year-round market store.
There is one final parcel the market still rents. The main parking area along Western Avenue is owned by Jonathan Chase, who has been renting the 1.2 acre piece to the market. The parcel is for sale and the two sides have been negotiating for years over a price the market feels it can afford.
Howard Prussack, co-owner of High Meadows Farm in Westminster, has been involved with the Brattleboro Area Farmers' Market from the beginning.
Prussack said that while there was initially reluctance to own land, and that some market members are still opposed, the market as an organization has matured.
"The alternative was to do nothing and over the years more of us have realized our responsibility to the vendors, many of who make a big chunk of their money there, and to the customers who support us," Prussack said. "There are pros and cons to owning land, there always are. It was an evolution for us as an organization to get to this point."
Prussack said it has taken a while to commit to buying the land, to waiting for the right time to make the purchases and then to raise the money.
"For all these years we have felt like itinerant farmers, and this is something some of us who have been involved with the market for so long could have only dreamed about," Prussack said. "We are close to establishing a permanent place in Windham County for the market. We are taking a post-industrial stretch of highway and creating a park-like atmosphere. For the first time in all these years we can say 'We will be here next year, and the year after that,' and that's a great feeling."
The Saturday market opens for the season on May 3 at 9 a.m.
The Wednesday market opens along the Whetstone Pathway near the Brattleboro Food Co-op on June 11.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.