On a Saturday morning in May, dozens of vendors were setting up their first open-air market of the season as an eager crowd pulled into parking spaces, children scurried in and out of booths, and smiles all around confirmed the sense of a festival unfolding. The Caledonia Farmers’ Market will mark 50 years with a celebration at its St. Johnsbury site on June 18.
This year’s vibrant market shows how local resilience and determination pulled the market through the extremes of a global pandemic, as vendors and buyers circulate in outdoor air, free to savor bright-colored vegetables just hours from the fields, home-baked bread and cookies, maple syrup, grass-raised beef, flowers, vegetable starts, seeds, Jamaican meals, tacos, roasted coffee, kettle corn and crafts that emerge from local skills in wood, soapmaking, and herbs.
The evening before the first market of the season, Annette Hyder was still scrambling to prepare the maple syrup, bouquets, vegetables, and greeting cards that she and Chris Goss bring, feeling so happy that the pressure barely mattered. “We enjoy it! I kind of think of this as our market family,” she declared, quickly, though almost out of breath.
Melanie Miller Hansen’s baskets and chair caning were easy to load up, but her newly baked bread and cookies make the day before “market” a challenge. At a summer market day, she can expect to sell four dozen loaves of bread and at least 40 dozen cookies, as well as small quiches—and that’s on top of the 60 dozen eggs per week she’ll sell via a local grocery store and a café. “I do several things to keep the farm going,” she says modestly.
Rhymes on the Radio, Music in the Midst
The neat rows of pop-up tents and canopies, hand-lettered signs, flats of flowers, and bright bags of greens and herbs have come a long way from 50 years ago. In 1972, farmers’ markets seemed new and a little bit “counterculture,” despite the way that the University of Vermont’s Extension Agents stood behind them. Phil Grime, as Caledonia County Extension Agent, connected with “back to landers” like Nat Tripp and Alan Parker, who’d already embraced the mystique of farming, even if the results were slow. With more experienced growers like Doug Howe, Walter Ladd, Charlie Sargent, the Boyds, and the Rossiers, they managed to create the first market gatherings—but they were much smaller than today.
Bruce Houghton remembers those early markets as a few tables at the side of the road, first at Burklyn Manor, a location that couldn’t draw much of a crowd, then in Lyndonville. At last, the farmers found a location that worked, in the dirt parking area of what was then the St. Johnsbury Junior High School on Western Avenue (later the Middle School and now the town’s central school location). There weren’t marked spaces—people set up wherever they liked.
Bruce’s wife Judy helped mark the market’s 25th year, in 1997, with some memories of her own of their contributions from about 1975 to 1987. “Bruce raised corn, squash and tomatoes,” she wrote then, reporting on the years before he specialized with Houghton’s Greenhouses. And he gave his voice for the market, crossing the road to the gas station, where he could phone into the morning show by Don Mulally, the popular anchor at local radio station WTWN, later WSTJ. Bruce would talk about the available produce, then add an entertaining rhyme like this:
“So come on down to the farmer’s market. Bring your car—there’s a place you can park it. Or walk on down if you live in town. Come on down and visit awhile. Fresh fruits and vegetables will make you smile.”
Today the nursery owner credits those days for teaching him how to speak to the public. “I learned to fit a certain amount of thought or text into the ads,” both for the radio and beyond.
Many years have passed, but Bruce remembers happily the Duchess apple pies that Edith Perkins brought to the market, along with some vegetables grown by her husband Stan. Elizabeth Everts, who learned to call Mrs. Perkins “Aunt Edie,” recalls the 10-12 pies quickly selling, and then Edith would chat with whoever came along.
Kate Abrams landed at Doug Nagle’s Barnet farm in 1984, moving into an empty cabin there. “Doug already had plans for me when I arrived” to work, she laughs now. With three acres to tend, she needed to get seeds, and soon she could get bedding plants from Bruce Houghton’s greenhouses.
Kate met fellow musician Ron Langley right away, and soon the mandolin player and the fiddler became a permanent couple. Her 1984 trips to the farmers’ market involved setting up a canopy and working from the bed of her truck, which over the years also included their four children and all related gear.
“The rules were pretty lax back then, too,” she reflected. “Walter Ladd did not want to enforce rules.” So she saw a lot of change over the next 30 years of the market and found that produce jurying made it much better.
Although her initial mission was to bring produce, Kate soon developed her knitting specialty, including the use of home knitting “machines” (frames that could hold a design) that let her create intricately patterned sweaters, hats, and mittens. She also sold sheepskins from the farm, and used to play music at enough of the market days that she had an actual sign for her booth for customers ready to purchase: “Feel free to interrupt the mandolin player!”
Farms With New Business Models
Jurying a farmer’s produce and presentation, and the addition of pop-up tents, brought fresh professionalism to the Caledonia Farmers’ Markets, which now include three locations: the parking lot on Pearl Street behind St. Johnsbury’s movie theater, a winter location inside the town office building, and starting in the early 1990s, a summer market on the Danville Green.
The Danville addition took place when construction at the St. Johnsbury Middle School meant scurrying for a new location for several years. Joe Newell, then leading the market group, felt a Route 2 location would be good. But the eventual establishment of the St. J. market downtown moved it toward the twin goals of central location and, in some future version, grass underfoot.
More significant changes, though, were growing with the farmers themselves. Even as the region’s dairy farming identity faded, young people with big dreams and built-up skills took on diversified farming (produce, flowers, syrup, more), and farmers’ markets were one of the three or four “legs” of their thriving family-based businesses.
Mary Skovsted grew up on a Barnet farm, and never intended to follow in her parents’ footsteps. “I thought it was really hard,” she said. Their milk as a product was “pre-sold,” but the dairy farm lifestyle felt isolating to her.
She met Eric, now her husband, at Middlebury College. They both had teaching licenses and Mary also had a nursing credential. “[But] we both were drawn to creating something, and being outside,” she says now.
So in 2009, after she’d worked at a vegetable farm in Plainfield, N.H., for a few years, the couple bought a house from the Hoyts of Barnet, then purchased the nearby barn. The barn held a tractor, which they traded for a greenhouse, and started their own “tomato house.” They joined the waiting list for the market, and their farm business started.
Despite experiments with trendy vegetables along the way (pink celery, celeriac, kohlrabi), they found the true superstars to be strawberries, lettuce, and tomatoes, especially the Big Beef tomato, “because it gets really sweet and it’s a great slicer—people enjoy it as a simple sandwich with mayonnaise.” Taking tomatoes directly to the market means the Skovsteds can allow them to be fully ripened, which can’t happen in conventional grocery marketing.
Their business depends on three markets—St. Johnsbury, Danville, Lyndonville—plus selling wholesale to the Littleton Food Cooperative, feeding customers directly through a CSA (community-supported agriculture, a seasonal subscription system), and their farm stand. Their kids, ages 5 and 8, take part and even choose what they want to grow.
“It was tough at first because I didn’t have anything to present,” Mary remembers. But after a few “humbling” summers, she caught up, and the market became a big part of her happiness. “I’ve always enjoyed the other vendors because there’s such a great diversity there.” She sees more support each year for the market, and hopes someday it will be on green grass—for the sake of vendors’ feet, children playing, and older people’s relaxed enjoyment.
Sounds Romantic, but It’s Not Easy!
Like the Skovsteds, Susan Monahan and Hisa Kominami brought training and skills to a farm concept that would balance the farmers’ market, a Route 2 market stand, and CSA subscriptions. Susan had wanted to farm since college, where she got a degree in nutrition, then worked on farms in California, Alaska, and Washington. “I caught the bug,” she admits. “That all sounds romantic, but it’s not easy!”
She’d grown up in nearby Littleton, N.H., and came back to New England for graduate school at the University of Vermont, earning a master’s in plant soil science. Hisa was doing the same, and they met in 2007, leaving school at last in 2010. Susan spent five years studying wheat and other field crops with UVM Extension, and Hisa joined a small environmental consulting firm in Montpelier.
Their land in East St. Johnsbury is known for its 1911 barn on what was the Patenaude family’s Locust Grove Farm. They connected with the farm through the Vermont Land Trust, then had to struggle for the mandated three years that “organic” certification requires.
It was really important to Susan to have an organic farm. She says, “For me, it’s part of living a healthy lifestyle. ‘Good Food Helps’ is what I like to live by!”
Also, like the Skovsteds, Susan and Hisa encourage their two sons (ages 4 and 7) to help out. They joined the market in 2016, and now it’s one of the special delights of their seven-year-old: “I like the playtime,” he says with a grin. “There’s always plenty!”
A Radical Model of Better Ways
The Farmers’ Market is now an expected part of daily life but when the original members put their energy into it, they were aware of establishing something new that could create common ground in the 1970s, as Vermont’s long-time residents met what could seem like an invasion of dreamers in the back-to-land movement.
Nat Tripp of Passumpsic, writing about the first years from the vantage point of 1997 (the 25-year celebration), said, “I have two kinds of memories of those wonderful early Farmer’s Market days: the social, of the sellers and buyers, of hippy homesteaders and native Vermonters finding common ground; and the solitary memories of dawn in the garden, filling buckets and baskets with carrots, beets, and lettuce.”
Alan Parker moved to North Danville as a one-year-old toddler with his parents, who slowly learned to farm. In turn, Alan became an advocate for woodlands, nature conservation, and more farm-related groups such as the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) and the Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA).
He observed the successes of people bringing their crops to the early Farmers’ Market. “Their pickups were fuller each Saturday morning … The variety of products they sold grew steadily. They smiled contentedly at their customers.” In 1997, he observed, “As the years have passed, the Farmers’ Market has become an institution, now a bi-weekly event not to be missed; this is exactly what we who started it hoped would happen. We discover that communities grow and prosper when people care for and share from the soil on which those communities are built.”
Skills and knowledge, as well as passion, were passed down from one generation of vendors to the next, and these leaders are still warmly remembered. Jean Elizabeth Temple, with a bustling home-based business in aromatherapy creams and therapeutic salves, still brings to the market the naturally perfumed soaps for which she credits her “soap mentor,” early vendor Mary Rossier—who also taught her the skills of business and promotion that eventually led to Jean Elizabeth’s “Herbal Harmony” not only scenting rooms at the Rabbit Hill Inn of Waterford but also ordered in large quantity from Japan.
Changes in the Farmers’ Market
Like Susan Monahan and Hisa Kominami, Melanie Miller Hansen’s farm involves land conserved for farming: 127 acres, where she and her husband Eric Hansen have about 300 laying hens, 300 meat birds, pigs, and belted Galloway cows. It used to belong to Cedric and Claire Pierce. The Hansens named their Sutton acres Thorntree Farm, a term from Eric’s family; they met in Haverhill, N.H., and he also has roots in Irasburg.
With eight years at the St. Johnsbury market and 11 at Danville, Melanie sees the farmers’ markets as a vital part of the community, one that brings joy. “People always look forward to it,” and it’s not just the produce and products—it’s also being outdoors, seeing people, mingling with tourists.
Not as obvious to shoppers, but constantly in Melanie’s thoughts, are the state guidelines and those from NOFA-VT, the Vermont branch of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. As the state has shifted its understanding of what the markets and other farm outlets mean to its economy and culture, it has renamed the overall state agency the “Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets” and delegated farm market supervision to NOFA-VT, which in turn provides the Vermont Farmers Market Association (VFMA) to work directly with vendors.
This network turned essential when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020. The VFMA already had an annual winter conference on marketing and food safety, and swiftly developed guidance to keep the markets safe. Elizabeth Everts recalls the state-mandated shutdown of all indoor markets at first, then efforts to make the outdoor markets function: masks, distancing, no music or seating, and guidance signs for customers.
“The markets are pretty much back to normal,” Elizabeth says now. “There are still some customers and vendors who are more comfortable wearing a mask, and why not? We’re learning how to live with [Covid].”
The usual changes in vendors may have accelerated as a result—Kate Abrams feels that the pandemic meant her knitted goods were no longer viable, for instance. But the Caledonia Farmers’ Markets, shaped as they were by Joe Newell and many others, have developed resilience and professionalism. Elizabeth laughs as she reports, “Taking over the market from Joe Newell was like taking the reins of a well-trained horse.”
In 1997 the market association marked 25 years, and this summer will celebrate 50, including T-shirts with purple lettering on a green background. Today the seven-member board includes the two co-managers plus Mary Skovsted, Derek Samuels (whose Jamaican meals are a popular treat), Koren Warden (with her husband William she provides grass-fed beef ad more), Ken Mundinger (wood and fabric crafts), and Melanie Hansen.
Despite all the changes and the rotation of vendors, the St. Johnsbury and Danville Farmers’ Markets remain a joyful addition to the community, for both the vendors and customers. Elizabeth reflects, “We’ve worked hard to maintain the market as mainly agricultural. There are not as many retirees now. The farmers are younger, and they’re in it to make a living.”
Among the many products and agricultural adventures to sample are handmade pork sausages from the Adams Family Farm, honey from Biz-Z-Bee Farm, crafts from Buckles & Bows, the Singing Smith, and Red Clover Keepsakes, CBD rubs from Primal Botanical, rum and gin from St. Johnsbury Distillery, cheeses from Karim Farm and Crooked Mile Cheese, cut flowers from Raven Flower Farm, and raw cows’ milk from Sunday Bell Farm—and many more engaging choices. Each vendor has a story to tell—like the way Nick and Olivia Heltzel began to transform a farm in Wheelock and created Inch by Inch Permaculture, adding discussions of biodiversity to the market.
Such changes suggest the next 50 years of the community farmers’ markets will have engaging surprises ahead. For the moment, though, the co-managers are focused on the June 18 celebration. Count on a scavenger hunt for kids, a corn hole game, the new T-shirts of course, and possibly even festive cupcakes. And, of course, some 40 booths of locally raised and crafted pleasures.