ON THE SCENE: Keene farmers market vital to many

Shopping at the Fledging Crow Vegetables tent at the Keene farmers market. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

The Keene farmers market is now open from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays at Marcy Field on state Route 73 between the hamlets of Keene and Keene Valley.

The market opened two weeks ago, and on Sunday, June 14, it expanded to included craft artisans along with the produce, artisan dairy and sustainably grown meats and other food items featured initially.

As a result of COVID-19 and New York state social distancing guidelines, the layout has been reconfigured to provide a greater distance between the tents so patrons can shop safely and have space to line up at 6-foot intervals. Wearing masks is required of patrons and vendors. Yet to be added, and is expected, will be live music and still more vendors.

While the energy is a bit different as people and vendors are no longer packed along a central “street,” it’s still easy to run into friends, have access to high-quality foods and crafts, and the view remains stunning and the parking ample. What is needed is more volunteers to cover the welcome table and assist with parking and customer flow. Sign up and duties take place at the welcome desk.

As for the vendors, all are glad that the market is open. For some, like rustic furniture maker Wes Whitney, nearly 75% of his sales and commissions come through the market.

“I’m glad to be here, most definitely,” said Whitney. “The farmers were allowed to set up to provide the essential stuff, food, for the first two weeks. And they recently decided to include us, and I’m happy to be here because this is where I make the major part of my income.”

For Mace Chasm Farm of Keeseville, the COVID-19 virus helped them reach a new market, people living in nearby Plattsburgh. While the city and town have a large population base, the residents have not been strong supporters of farmers markets. However, the shortage of meats in traditional grocery stores changed all that as people started searching farther afield and found not just meat available down the road, but of quality not possible in the supermarkets.

“When industrial agriculture’s meat supplies failed and the shelves were empty, a lot of new customers from Plattsburgh found us,” said Courtney Sutton of Mace Chasm Farm. “Some percentage of those people will remain customers. That’s been great because they are people who can support us year-round. Fall, winter and spring is a challenging time for us, so I am hopeful they will stay with us.”

For nearly all the food vendors, the impact of COVID-19 has been mixed. As an example, Fledging Crow Vegetables in Keeseville, which also sells produce in New York City, has seen its sales to individuals surge. Yet, at the same time, its transactions with local restaurants and hotels plunged.

“When COVID-19 first hit, we were going to New York City, and our sales doubled for about two months,” said Ian Ater of Fledging Crow. “It was challenging for all the staff going down there, but we were pleased to be bringing people in New York City food. It was very beneficial for us financially, but meanwhile, we lost a hundred percent of our hotel and restaurant business. Some of the things that have helped us have been the loan deferment payments. A lot of our equipment payments are now picking back up. All in all, for our particular business, organic vegetables, it’s been very positive.”

At the same time, following the strictest protocols for food and equipment handling, and hand washing is a lot more work. All the vendors cannot relax at any aspect of their business from the planting to the raising, distribution and sales. It was like taking already high standards to a far higher level that requires constant attention. Ater said that part has been exhausting. He also noted that a large number of seasonal residents arrived early, and thus his core base effectively broadened.

For maple syrup producer and innkeeper Tony Corwin of South Meadow Farm Lodge & Sugarworks outside Lake Placid, selling maple products is not his only income source. Many like him operate B&Bs and AirBnBs to help pay the bills.

“We probably won’t open the bed and breakfast again until this is all over,” said Tony. “The best part is sitting down to a family-style breakfast where we get to know everybody, and we can’t do that now. On the sugar side of things, we’ve been severely impacted by no wholesale as restaurants and gift shops haven’t been open. Retail at our farm was down about 40%. The only bright spot is everybody ordered online, so those sales went way up.”

“We were very disappointed when they canceled our maple weekend,” said Joy Herfurth of Brandy Brook Maple Farm in Ellenburg Center. “Unfortunately, we were robbed of that opportunity this year. The markets have been wonderful because up until this point, other than our maple weekends, we don’t have any other venues. So the markets are critical to many other small farmers in the area and us.”

“The weirdest thing is vendors not being able to give people samples to try,” said Hannah Collins, of WildFlora Provisions. Her business sells gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free products made for people following elimination diets for healing their gut or other health issues, allergies or other health sensitive issues. “When you are offering specialty items, it’s hard to describe their taste in a way that the customer can fully understand. But the good thing is that the markets are happening.”

Aside from the quality of the offering and Keene’s convenient location, which is appealing to visitors heading home, another aspect that makes this market so popular is the variety of offerings. Yogurt is a popular dairy offering at supermarkets. They feature a multitude of flavorings, but have you ever had yogurt made from sheep’s milk? It’s available at the Keene farmers market.

“Sheep yogurt is very mild, but it’s super-rich and creamy compared to cow’s milk,” said Shannon Eaton at Blue Pepper Farm in Jay. “Sheep’s milk has twice the protein and twice the fat, resulting in a very rich and very delicious yogurt.”

Other delights range from Irma Hernandez’s homemade tamales to the Crown Point Bread Company bakery to the Sugar House Creamery’s brown Swiss Cow milk-based products and goat cheese from Asgaard Farm & Dairy, along with several wineries, coffee roasters and producers of honey, granola and other specialty items.

My advice is to bring a big bag–ideally more than one like Lana Gokey of Jay did on Sunday, June 14.

“I got very sick a few years ago by purchasing non-organic produce,” said Gokey. “It wasn’t until I realized what was going on, started eating organic, and using herbs to get the toxins out of my system that I got healthy again. Keene is convenient, and they offer a lot of good food and other specialty items here. I like the new layout; it’s a lot more organized.”