by Jordan Renouf
It was Saturday morning in mid July and I awoke early with my mind abuzz, already hatching a plan for the day. No matter where one finds themselves in Vermont, Saturdays are special as these are the days that most of the state’s farmers’ markets take place. Today I planned to make the 15 minute drive into Brattleboro for its weekly gathering which takes place from 9am to 2pm. I was on a quest to revisit an event which had been a foundational part of my early life but which I had not returned to in many years.
Before hitting the hay the night before, I brewed a fresh cup of coffee, carefully transferred it into a large mason jar and set this to the back of the refrigerator to rest for the night. Now, with the dawn of the weekend morning and a few eggs from the coop next door scrambled and eaten, I threw ice cubes in the jar, splashed in some milk and made my way to the car with a wonderfully chilled ice coffee in hand. Driving into town with the fresh caffeine doing its best to replace my introversion with an excitement to talk with my fellow market goers, I began to retrace my history with the Brattleboro farmers’ market.
When I was young I would attend the farmers’ market alongside my parents. I remember the sense of adventure I would feel as we entered the market, abuzz with activity. Being of the wonderful age where familiar adults could still be ignored without seeming rude, I would run through the market with friends finding trees to climb and stalls to disappear behind when girls appeared. These were some of my earliest opportunities to be free of my parents, as they knew that I would be safe within the boundaries of a tract of land no bigger than my backyard. At last I was independent, making bold decisions, moving outside of their radar - all with the nervous excitement that accompanies the innocence of that age. These early encounters with autonomy were made possible by the microcosm of society that the farmers’ market is. It was here that I would bring my hard-earned chore money and make purchases without disapproving looks from above. Here that I had my first interactions with adults that were not prompted or mediated by others. Here that decisions of caution and safety were left up to those of us who found ourselves with a friend’s bloodied knee or a raging river to be crossed. Farmers’ markets provided the early instruction into what is required when you are on your own. While adult life was still far in the future, the waxing independence that accompanies the transition into early teenage years was right around the corner and the market provided an exciting glimpse into these approaching days.
Fast forward to 2019 and adulthood had long been upon me. Arriving at the turn off to the farmers’ market and quickly spotting a recently vacated grass covered parking spot, I pulled in and made my way towards the nearby hum of activity. Walking under a white 2x4 with painted blue lettering marking the entrance, I found myself at a corner of the rectangular market. The market’s perimeter is made up of canopied stalls with exposed wood framing. Some are built with large counters to display goods while others have folding tables with brightly colored cloth coverings. Stepping into the gentle stream of people making their way around the market, I saw vaguely familiar faces, both young and old, aged 10 years since our last meeting. There were tourists too, having made their way off Interstate 91 and stumbled upon the gathering, moving around the market with wide eyes and curious stares.
Lazily making my way from booth to booth I stopped at Gilles’ Baguettes where a young father is tearing apart a small roll for his toddler to eat as he pays. I introduce myself to Charlie, a twenty-something year old behind the counter, and learn that his father started the business and has steadily transitioned their home into a bakery. He shows me the bread they make, styled after the French, and the pastries he offers which are made by the woman selling jewelry next-door. It’s a quick conversation and I make my way further down the row to ‘Wingrate Farm’ which advertises itself as a “Women owned & operated” organic farm. Here Susie Park-Sutherland moves between baskets of veggies, answering questions and waving to passersby. Wearing a grey sleeveless T, a low brim baseball cap, and a tan to match her profession she explains to me the journey she and a friend have been on over the past 6 years in operating their 1.5 acre farm and recently hiring on their first employee. With 1,100 pasture raised laying hens, Susie’s largest markets are the wealthy suburbs of Boston and NYC, where “free-range” and “Vermont-raised” can still command a premium price. The Brattleboro market, however, is still the best way to sell her variety of vegetables as they’re at their freshest when sold locally. While we chat, Susie continues weighing veggies and exchanging cash with patrons. After selecting turnips, radishes and a large bunch of kale, one man bashfully admits he has forgotten his bags at home. Asking if Susie has any, he laments the use of plastic all the while assuring her that he will reuse the small grocery bag she has given him. Noticing my recorder as he makes to leave, the older man proudly informs me that these are the finest salad turnups around. By now, a line has queued up and I move on to let Susie get back to business.
Making my way around the famously long line in front of the “Fresh Squeezed Lemonade” booth, I enter Dwight Miller Orchards farm stand, intent on finding the fresh strawberries that I’ve been waiting for all year. Here Ruth Miller, a mid-twenties woman stands between low shelves of fruit on her right and aluminum maple syrup containers on her left. She regretfully informs me that all of her beautiful strawberries were sold out but raspberry season was right around the corner if I come back next week. As I look around the stand, Ruth points me to her jams and explains that a good chunk of her business comes from using her farm-grown fruits and vegetables to make “value-added products” like jam, maple treats and cider vinegar. I ask Ruth what her favorite part about selling at farmers’ markets is and without hesitation she replies that the EBT program is what makes this special for her. The State of Vermont has created a unique food program for those in need which provides a debit card and monthly balance for food so that all in the state are guaranteed three square meals. Partnering with the State’s farmers’ markets has meant that EBT recipients can use this money, in the form of small wooden tokens worth $1 each, to purchase healthy, nutrient dense food - all while supporting local producers. At the Brattleboro market, virtually every single stand had a welcoming “We Accept EBT Tokens” sign pinned at the front. It is through this program that Vermont signals its belief that healthy, local food is a human right and not a privilege. While in many places, certain food markets are exclusive based on the purchasing power of individuals, Vermonters in need have the dignity and freedom to shop for whatever food they wish. In the small microcosm that is Vermont, we see the potential for programs which uphold human liberty and foster community inclusivity.
By now the sun was high in sky and a rare 90 degree day had fully arrived. As I make my way to the corner of the market where I had entered, I stop at a small folding table with a darker skinned man in his late 40s contently sitting cross legged behind. This was Bigan and as I introduce myself he welcomes me behind his table to take a seat on a wood, Windsor-style chair. Bigan was an Iranian man who had moved to the States in 1985 and had lived in Vermont ever since. He shows me the beautiful, multi-colored bars of soap he was selling at $3 a piece and then points to the chairs we were seated on. These he hand made and sold at a few local farmers’ markets in Windham County, Vermont. He explains to me how he was usually able to make ends meet with these homemade products but when money ran low, most often in the winter, he’d drive a cab in Brattleboro to make some extra cash. He enjoyed this occasional seasonal gig as it allowed him to meet new people and explore Windham County. I asked if he had returned to Iran since his coming here and he replied with a soft smile and a shaking of his head, “I could go back but I might end up being a guest of the State”.
It was closing in on 2pm and the caffeine buzz from the morning had been replaced with a vague tiredness from the hot sun. Bigan and I leave the stand together, him walking barefoot and with a slow ease in the direction of the lemonade stand, me out the exit and towards my car.