hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues June 2022


Local food for a hungry town

Farmers market expands through year-round retail storefront



Volunteers and staff of the New Lebanon Farmers Market -- Phoebe Young, Josh Young, Lucas Cipkowski and Eleanor Young -- stand behind some of the fresh produce at the market’s new year-round retail storefront. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


The food desert of New Lebanon now has a new nutritional oasis.
Over the past year, the New Lebanon Farmers Market has evolved from its original role as a weekly outdoor event in the summer and fall to become a four-season operation with a year-round indoor retail store and delivery service.

The new store helps to fill a void in northeastern Columbia County. New Lebanon’s only supermarket closed more than a decade ago, and since then the town’s residents have had to travel to reach full-service grocery stores. The nearest are over the mountain in Pittsfield, Mass., 10 miles to the east, or 15 miles southwest in Chatham.

“We’ve been expanding to provide greater food access for people here and to enable regional farmers and food producers to make sales throughout the year,” explained Josh Young, the farmers market’s director. “We’re excited about this larger role, and the response from the public has been enthusiastic.”

New Lebanon has been known informally over the past 13 years as a “food desert,” but the term also is a classification of the U.S. Department of Agriculture based on specific criteria. Under its standard, a food desert is a community or neighborhood whose residents, particularly those with low or moderate incomes, don’t have access to sources of healthy affordable food within reasonable walking or driving distance.

In the years since the independent New Lebanon Supermarket closed in late 2009, the only grocery offerings locally have been a limited selection of items at convenience stores and a Family Dollar. Driving to Pittsfield takes about 20 minutes each way, and Chatham’s supermarket is nearly 30 minutes away.

“Because of New Lebanon’s situation, people have needed a reliable nearby source of good food,” Young said. “We started looking at ways we could expand the farmers market to meet that need.”

The project could offer a model for other communities in the region to expand the availability of locally produced foods — and to better serve a towns and neighborhoods that have become food deserts.


Expanding indoors
The traditional outdoor New Lebanon Farmers Market is still held every week, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays from June through November, in a parking lot at 502 U.S. Route 20.

The retail store, which began operation last summer, is a short distance away at 528 U.S. Route 20. It’s open 12 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday for direct retail sales to walk-in customers — and as the base for a delivery service. It carries fruits and vegetables, baked goods and other prepared foods. Its sources include vendors who participate in the outdoor market as well as other local and regional providers.

In late 2021, the market received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program to help fund its operations. The market has also received a low-interest $15,000 loan for commercial refrigerators from Berkshire Agricultural Ventures, an organization that supports the region’s agricultural economy through loans, grants and other services to farms and related businesses and projects.

Young, a native of Wisconsin who had lived in Brooklyn, moved upstate to New Lebanon in 2020. He began working with the farmers market shortly after that. Members of his family were already involved with the market. His sister Eleanor is co-director, and his mother, Phoebe, also helps with it.

The farmers market currently has a paid staff with the equivalent of one full-time and four part-time positions. The organization recently hired Lucas Cipkowski as market manager. It also has a core group of about 20 volunteers.

“We’re heavily reliant on volunteers to handle store operations and services, deliveries, and specific business-support tasks such as website design,” Young explained.

As a first step in its expansion, the farmers market enhanced its online presence in 2020, creating a virtual Thursday market that operated during the regular outdoor market’s season.
“That was a simple way to start,” Young said. “We asked vendors from the market what specific items they wanted to make available for online shopping on a weekly basis.”

The producers would give them a list, and those items were posted on the market’s website (newlebanonfarmersmarket.com). Customers for each week’s virtual market could place orders through Wednesday. Then the producers would deliver the specified items to the store — or the market picked them up. On Thursdays, customers picked up their items or had them delivered to their homes.

For a storage and pick-up location, the market rents space in a historic building known as Fishers’ Store (named for a business that had once occupied it). The structure is owned by the Phoenix Project of Eastern New York, a historic preservation organization founded by Young’s aunt. It houses several small businesses in addition to the farmers market.

When the outdoor market wrapped up its season in the fall of 2020, it continued to operate its virtual market — expanding it to two pickup days per week. That operation evolved into the retail store, which opened in August.

“Since we already had space and were keeping food on site, a logical next step was to also do retail sales there by opening it up to walk-in customers,” Young said. “Producers could bring in items, and we would sell those to the public for them.”

As with the outdoor market, the store serves as a direct retail outlet for participating farmers and other vendors. The vendors provide their products and set the prices, which they receive in full. The market adds 12 percent to the sale price to cover its expenses.


More sales for local producers
Young said combining the outdoor weekly market with a year-round retail outlet is a benefit for regional farmers and food producers.

“The standard model of a farmers market is great, but it does have limitations,” Young said. “In some respects they’re more exclusive and don’t have a broad customer base. They’re also not easy for farmers, who have to pack up and bring their goods — and spend the day at the market. But with the online and retail store, they have an outlet to sell their products on an ongoing basis without having to be here.”

Having a storefront also makes the market accessible to more vendors.
“Space is limited in the outdoor market,” he explained. “Also, in the store we can carry products from smaller-scale enterprises.”

There are currently about 15 regular vendors at the outdoor market and about 30 who sell products through the storefront.

Young said the market has also started adding some items from other sources from which it buys on a wholesale basis. These are products that do not compete with its vendors, such as out-of-season produce from outside the region and other items that are not available locally.
“We’ve started doing that to augment what we have -- to offer more selection for our customers,” Young explained.

The retail operation has grown significantly over the past year. In one week in April, the market generated about $10,600 in revenue.

“Last year, that figure averaged around $3,000,” Young said.
The farmers market originally was set up as a for-profit limited liability company, but its leaders are working to change it into a nonprofit entity.

“Being a nonprofit will make us eligible for grants and other funding,” Young said. “It also reflects our mission and goals. It’s a community service. We don’t make money as a business. We want producers to make money and provide a source of food for consumers.”

To make the products more affordable customers with low and moderate incomes, the market accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cards and provides a match of up to $30, which doubles the purchasing power of users. This is funded through Berkshire Agricultural Ventures.
The farmers m

arket store offers both a pre-order pick-up service and home delivery. When an online order is placed while the store is open, it can be picked up 30 minutes later. Customers can also request a specific pick-up time.

The store offers deliveries in the evenings from Wednesday through Saturday. There is a delivery fee based on the size of order and distance. The fee for a $40 order is $6 within four miles, $8 for four to eight miles, and $10 for eight to 12 miles. For an order of $40 to $80 the fees are $4, $6 and $8. There is no fee for orders over $80.

The customer base extends well beyond the center of New Lebanon. Young said the store has made deliveries to customers as far away as Berlin, Old Chatham, Nassau and Hillsdale as well as in Pittsfield and Stockbridge, Mass.

Looking forward, Young acknowledged that the farmers market storefront is unlikely to reach a scale that would completely solve the problem of food access in New Lebanon. But he said supporters aim to expand its services and products.

“We’re not going to fill the role that a supermarket would,” he said. “However, New Lebanon certainly needs a good small grocery store to reduce the amount people have to drive to Pittsfield or Chatham. We’re continuing to look for additional ways we can fill that role.”