|Williamstown Farmers Market Winds Down Successful Virtual Season|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
04:07AM / Wednesday, October 14, 2020
|Williamstown Farmers Market orders stand ready for curbside pickup at the Williamstown Youth Center.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Farmers Market wraps up its season on Saturday, but Wednesday is the last day to order baked goods, dairy, fruits, produce or any of the items produced by a dozen local farmers.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in full force in March, the farmers market was faced with a choice: ride out the storm and see if conditions would allow the kind of face-to-face market that people have grown to love on Spring Street or overhaul the system and go virtual.
After a lot of hard work in a relatively short period of time, the market stood up an online ordering system that enabled the nearly 40-year institution to continue without missing a beat.
"Market orders opened May 11, and the first Saturday for pickups was May 15, and that would have been our first Saturday as a traditional market," the market's board Chair Anne Hogeland said this week.
Nearly every Saturday — except one — since then, area farmers have been delivering orders of fresh food to customers at a centralized pickup location.
Three thousand orders and counting going into the final week of the season, with well over $100,000 in total sales, Hogeland said.
It may not have been quite as much business as farmers would have done at a traditional market, but it helped those producers weather the storm of a shattered economy.
"I think it was very important, especially for vegetable farmers who had planned and planted ahead for the season and needed an outlet for their produce," said Leslie Reed-Evans, a board member who works with meat producer East Mountain Farm. "Without restaurants, there was no other way for them to sell unless they had a [community-supported agriculture] or other direct sale option in place.
"For other food producers — the cheese, pickles and jellies, for example — it was good to continue to have that presence in a market umbrella."
Evans said East Mountain did about a third of the business it normally expects to do at the farmers market in the summer. But the farm is fortunate in that it has contactless purchasing available in its barn, and sales there have been strong.
"It was obviously less than we normally expect at the market, however, because of the pandemic and people's desire to have local, good, trustworthy products, the farm store has done much better," Wells said. "[Owner Kim Wells] hasn't done the figures, but it's probably made up for that difference."
Even though total market sales were down, Evans said the virtual market has opened a few doors. Through online ordering, she sees customers' addresses and has noticed some unfamiliar names and hometowns from the region and beyond she does not normally see.
"The people who came to town to stay during the pandemic, we hope that some of those people will still support us by coming to the farm," Evans said.
Sarah Lipinski is the Williamstown Farmers Market's online marketing manager and proprietor of Sweet Brook Farm. She said the pre-ordering system was worth the effort.
"There's a real difference [in revenue] depending on what you're selling," Lipinski said. "I know our produce farmers did reasonably as well as they normally do — maybe not quite as well as an in-person market, but, from what I hear, they did a comparable business. The rest of our farmers and vendors suffered some percentage of loss.
"Compared to prior years, with the loss of tourists and impulse buys and people seeing things on vendor's tables and making small micropurchases versus one large purchase. I think all those factors impacted our vendors.
"But it's better than nothing. There was not going to be a market if we didn't do this preorder system."
Organizers had about six weeks to get the online ordering system
up and running and to get farmers used to the process of checking the orders — due by 5 p.m. each Wednesday — and fulfilling them by Saturday.
"It was pretty incredible," Evans said. "A lot of people made that happen. We were really grateful for that, and I think people were grateful for that. We've had lots of people say, ‘Thank you,' and, ‘This feels safe.' There were peopel who came every single week, so you know it was important to them."
Evans and Hogeland gave Lipinski a lot of the credit for getting the online system up and running.
"Every week, the vendors upload the inventory to the website, saying what they'll be posting that week," Hogeland said. "Once that is all uploaded and Sarah turns on ordering for the store, the orders start coming in quickly. People set their alarm for when the market hours would open. Then vendors are told what their orders are."
In addition to maintaining the momentum of a market that started in 1981, the online ordering process has enabled the Williamstown Farmers Market to continue its tradition of supporting the area's food pantries.
And used ot purchase produce from local farms to donate to local pantries,
For several years, volunteers from St. John's Episcopal Church in Williamstown have come to the Spring Street market near closing time and collected donations from vendors to pass along to local food pantries.
This year, the WFM introduced its Community Essential Initiatiive, which allows shoppers in the online ordering system to make donations ranging from $5 to $100 each week. Thanks to grants from Berkshire Health Systems and Berkshire United Way, those donations are then matched 100 percent and used to purchase produce from local farms to donate to local pantries, Hogeland said.
"As soon as we got the new [online ordering] model up and running, we started exploring how we could support local food pantries in connection with this model," Hogeland said.
As successful as the virtual market has been, everyone is hoping that next year sees the return of vendors stalls, live music and foot traffic at the bottom of Spring Street each Saturday morning.
But with the infrastructure for online ordering established, is there room for some sort of blended market that combines virtual and face-to-face sales? Hogeland is unsure.
"We are learning enormous amounts as we go along, and to the extent we can incorporate our knowledge from this year into ways to better serve the community broadly in coming years, certainly," she said. "If that means bringing in some component of this, we certainly can. There are advantages of pre-ordering for everyone, but there are advantages in a safe environment to doing what we do every year.
"We want to do the best we can for the vendors, farmers and community every year, and this year certainly was a dramatic change. We built something we never built before. How and if we use that going forward, we'll keep that in mind."