BENNINGTON -- More than 180 vendors lined the grass of Camelot Village on Saturday and Sunday for the Southern Vermont Garlic Festival, offering a wide variety of unique garlic products, as well as fresh garlic.
"Everything went wonderfully well," said Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce member and Garlic Fest event chair Lindy Lynch on Sunday, about an hour before the festival closed for the year. She said that well over 8,000 people attended on Saturday, and at least 4,000 had come out despite the weather on Sunday, although a final tally wasn't yet available. This put the festival on pace to break their record attendance of 12,000 from last year. Lynch said that the success of Garlic Fest is a success for the whole community. "Restaurants win," she said, "Retail wins. All the motels from Manchester to Williamstown are full."
While many of the vendors return year after year, it was the first year for many of them. The 19th annual event, which is put on by the Chamber, featured several garlic growers from southern Vermont, including Joy and John Primmer of Wildstone Farm in Pownal. According to Lynch, it was the first year that garlic growers from the southern part of the state contributed. Others, such as Wild Shepard Farm of Athens, started coming to the festival in its infancy, in 2002. "We begged them to come year after year," said Lynch of the growers from southern Vermont, "We're so happy they were able to come this year.
Michael and Danielle Lopes of Witchcat Farm in Bakersfield began vending at the festival six years ago. Witchcat Farm's cash crop is garlic, which Michael Lopes said could come in a range of varieties. "We started with one variety, the 'Hungarian Purple Stripe'" Lopes said, "and then we just continuously increased in numbers. What's most common, you'll notice everyone here has what's called 'German White' or 'German Porcelain.' But that's not what you find in grocery stores. What they have comes out of California and can only be grown in warm climates, a variety called 'Artichoke.'"
The Lopes began growing garlic when they bought their farm in 1987, and became a specialty garlic farm in 1995, now selling 10,000 pounds of garlic every year, which is mostly distributed by Vermont-based High Mowing Seed Company, as well as through direct market and co-op sales. Witchcat farm sets aside another 2,000 pounds of garlic every year to break apart the bulbs into segments to be planted in the fall. The farm does everything but tilling the soil by hand, planting 58,000 heads of garlic in less than an acre of land.
"At the garlic festivals, we get a chance to sell a lot of these oddball varieties," Lopes said, "People are interested: If they haven't tried a certain variety before, they'll buy it. Just like somebody who drinks wine or whiskey, you can taste the difference between varieties. They each have their nuances. Some are better fresh, some are better roasted, others are better mixed with tomatoes or basil."
Sweets made with garlic were also a big hit at the festival, with the Apple Barn of Bennington selling garlic fudge, the Village Chocolate Shoppe of Bennington selling chocolate-garlic truffles, Bart's Homemade Ice Cream of Amherst, Mass. selling garlic ice cream, and Fancy Pants Cakes of Bennington selling garlic cupcakes, to name a few.
Also at the festival was a full lineup of local music ranging from bluegrass and jazz to funk and classic rock. "Some of these guys have been with us since the beginning, since the festival moved over the mountain," said festival music coordinator Michellle Hogan. She mentioned that there were too new perfomers at the festival this year, Ray Gifford, and Julia and Sonya.
Entertainment, services, and the kinds of vendors are tweaked every year by the chamber, based on surveys available to the crowd goers. To accomodate people's requests, there had been added seating every year, which this year included dozens of newly-built wood benches.
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the festival, and Lynch said that plans were already in the works to make next year even more memorable. While nothing has been finalized yet, she said that the chamber is planning a party for the vendors, and is hoping to find a group willing to sponsor a fireworks display. Memorabilia from the very first Garlic Fest is also expected to be on display. In addition, Lynch and Harrington said that marketing for the event would start even earlier next year, with the hopes of bringing in a record 20,000 visitors. "20 for 20!" they said.
Garlic festival volunteer Jenn Eastman has worked on surveys and marketing for the event for several years. She said that the feedback ranges: "More garlic, less garlic, thank you for making it not just garlic. You get a little bit of everything. We also take people's zip codes, and we find that people come from pretty much all over. Mostly from New England, but beyond: Texas, Washington State, Arizona, and even out of the country." Bennington's economic and community development director Michael Harrington confirmed that he had spoken with guests from every New England state, as well as Pennsylvania, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Texas, the United Kingdom, and Belgium.
"I think a lot of people left here and went downtown," said Harrington, "They made a weekend out of it." Lynch agreed that that was one of the reasons Garlic Fest closes at 5 p.m. every year, so that people have a few hours of daylight left to enjoy the town.
Many organizations teamed together to make the event happen, from the Chamber of Commerce to the Bennington and Catamount Rotary Clubs, the Better Bennington Corporation, the NORSHAFT Lions, and many more, said Lynch. Event organizers also filled over 200 two-hour volunteer time slots, although Lynch said many of those slots were filled by the same people, and that they're hoping for more volunteers next year. State representative Mary Morrissey volunteered to direct traffic for most of the day on both Saturday and Sunday, greeting visitors as they entered, and inviting them to come back next year as they left. Morrissey has volunteered at the event every year since the beginning, she said, adding, "It's a great thing for the community."