Farmers Market Moving Outside
By Sean Sullivan
The Natick Farmers Market has been taking tentative steps outside as the weather warms. Sequestered in the Common Street Spiritual Center during colder months, vendors have been sprouting around the facility grounds of late like the budding leaves of spring among branches.
Market merchants haven’t yet spread to the adjacent Natick Common. That’s reserved for May 8, the date that the Natick Farmers Market has been given the green light to return to the green lawn.
Deb Sayre has been coordinating the market for a quarter century, and so took the constraints of the pandemic in relative stride over the past year.
Sayre could be found just inside the Common Street Spiritual Center on a recent Saturday in late March, while skies and sunshine just outside might have made the warming days of May jealous. The rear parking lot of the center had become a mini farmers market in its own right, with trucks and farm stands doing business under early springtime sun.
Their goods included fresh veggies and meats, and masked customers browsed at wooden tables among scales and produce. In keeping with the spirit and name of the market, a good number of farms are slated to participate in the event over the coming season.
Amazingly, the Natick Farmers Market event continued almost unabated throughout the pandemic last year. The sole interruption was due to a blizzard.
To keep the market going in such trying times, vendors had been limited to about 20 during the winter, and have been situated around the perimeter of the center’s main hall, given ample space from their fellow sellers. The basement of the facility has also hosted vendors, offering the market more sellers and square footage to work with.
“The density was much less,” said Sayre.
The pandemic and colder months conspired to punish small businesses in particular. Stalwarts like the Natick Farmers Market were exceptions during the last year, when many such venues suspended their operations in response to the health crisis. Outlets for small, often home-based businesses depend heavily on markets like these to get their name out and sell directly to customers.
“It’s been tough with the whole Covid thing,” said Karen Fintonis. She owns and operates Brookfield Candle Company, and was situated in front of the stage of the center’s hall that Saturday. Fintonis said she’s attended and sold at seven markets like Natick’s in all of 2020, compared to 53 the year prior.
The classic mason jars that add a rustic touch to businesses like hers have seen their value much vaunted during the pandemic. The jars have sometimes doubled in price over the past year, as people sequestered at home have turned to hobbies like candle making, cooking and crafts to fill their hours.
The price of soy wax has also shot up over the last year, the substance that Fintonis uses to fashion her candles. Factors like these that may once have been taken for granted can take a considerable bite out of small business budgets.
“The jar shortage has been worst,” she said. “It’s been tough for the small crafter business.”
The impending move to the much more spacious and picturesque Natick Common will alleviate at least some of the constraints the pandemic had placed on small businesses like Fintonis’. The larger area will allow the event to accommodate more vendors, a return to some semblance of normal.
The increased space that the common affords will also allow for a greater number of food vendors at the market, though merchants who sell prepared, take-away food will be discouraged from attending. This, said Sayre, is an effort to avoid encroaching on the turf of brick and mortar food establishments that do business near the common.
It’s also, in part, to discourage shoppers lingering at the market. While vendors will be spaced further apart during these Saturday events due to Covid, Sayre and the other participants are mindful of how in-person, outdoor events like these can be magnets for people wanting to socialize in welcoming, warm weather spaces.
Attendees and vendors will recall the character of the market in years past, when sellers were sequestered in the shade of the common’s southwest corner. Shoppers and sellers often jostled shoulder to shoulder in those beforetimes, when thoughts of paper masks and a pandemic were mere fodder for films.
Now, vendors are likely to be spread sparsely throughout the common, offering ample space for shoppers to amble about. The new spacing strategy and strictures will also let vendors stand out from the crowd, so to speak, allow each shop to stand a little more in the sun.
“Elbow room” seems an outdated expression these days, nudged aside by circumstances for the more cold and clinical practice of social distancing. We’ve all become a Kevin Bacon of sorts, held to six degrees (feet) of separation from our fellow actors in this drama. At least for the time being.
That being the case, look for plenty of breathing space this spring and summer at the Natick Farmers Market. Sayre has decades of experience coordinating and running the event, and is familiar with its topography and traffic.
“I’ve reconfigured several times over the years,” said Sayre. “It will be spread out and safe.”
It also helps to have a team of dedicated volunteers on hand to help, which Sayre does. That, and a steady stream of nearly 300 vendors is proof of the market’s sustained success and popularity over the years.
“We are, by other people’s standards, the best market around,” said Sayre.
Of all those vendors on her roster, said Sayre, she’s seen in years of late that more young artists and artisans are joining the creative economy, and offering what they make via the Natick Farmers Market. That, and the coming warmer weather, a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, all seem to bode well for the future.
“I love when that happens. You can’t do it alone,” she said.