Co-owner of Koshari Mama, Dina Fahim holds one of the many dishes they offer at the Lowell Farmers Market. Helping is friend Lex Elleisy, 12, of Lowell.
Co-owner of Koshari Mama, Dina Fahim holds one of the many dishes they offer at the Lowell Farmers Market. Helping is friend Lex Elleisy, 12, of Lowell. NASHOBA VALLEY VOICE /DAVID H. BROW

WESTFORD -- Town officials were taken by surprise when organizers of the summertime farmers market decided not to run it this year, but for those in charge of the weekly event, the challenges had been steadily growing.

With similar markets taking place in almost every surrounding town and local farms themselves selling produce on their own property every day, Westford organizers had trouble drawing enough attention.

"After running the Farmers Market for 12 successful years, it has become increasingly difficult to produce a high quality, sustainable market with the vendors and services that will attract a large enough customer base to keep the market viable," Zac Cataldo, one of the organizers of the market, wrote to town officials in April. "While we are fortunate to have fresh, organic local food available at supermarkets in Westford, it is difficult to run a successful farmers market when many of the products our market offered are also available seven days a week just down the street."

Although Westford town employees say they are committed to reopening a market next year, the absence of the event underscores challenges farmers markets face.

Chelmsford's weekly market is succeeding after switching from Thursdays to Saturdays under new leadership, but before a new organizing committee materialized, the event's future was unclear.

Tewksbury had struggled to get farmers to commit to participating, and those that did saw little business, according to Town Manager Richard Montouri.


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This year, with no farmers on board, the town rebranded the event as a "community market" focusing on crafts and other vendors and moved it to the public library, its fourth location, to drive traffic.

"We have faced big challenges," Montouri said. "We're still not seeing what we'd like to see for interest. It might be an oversaturation. It might just be that residents have too many other choices on where to get items."

Sustainable Westford had run its farmers market on the town common for more than a decade before shuttering this year. Town Manager Jodi Ross said she did not learn of the decision until April, and by that time, it was too close to the start of the season to pursue another option.

In response, though, she said town committees are working to examine options for reopening a market in 2019.

"It is our plan to hopefully bring this back next year, maybe in a different location, maybe a little bit different," she said.

Many area farmers participate in markets across the region, often more than one per day. So long as the logistics can be smooth, the benefits are apparent: farmers make more money selling directly to customers than they do at wholesale prices to supermarkets, which take part of the profits for themselves.

"Farmers markets offer a great venue for a farm that isn't on a main road to be able to get its product directly to the consumer," said Dave Dumaresq, who owns Farmer Dave's in Dracut, East Street Farm in Tewksbury and Hill Orchard in Westford. "In the urban areas in cities, people that live in the cities might not have a car to go directly to the farm stand for the product. So we're basically bringing our product to the urban locations"

Dumaresq's staff sells produce at a dozen markets during the week, from Lowell to Boston and Newburyport. He was surprised that Westford's market did not reopen, describing the market's performance last summer as "one of our best ever years."

However, Dumaresq noted that business can vary significantly. In Somerville, he said, he would expect 5 to 10 percent of the population to solicit farmers markets regularly, but in Dracut or Westford, he would expect that figure to be below 1 percent.

"That's a huge disparity," he said. "After having done it for so many years, I still don't understand why different towns support their markets differently."

Some markets in the area, though, appear to be doing well.

Susan Brittain, who manages the Friday market in Lowell, said the event faced challenges getting enough vendors toward the end of last season but has been booming this year. She credited a new state program, the SNAP Health Incentives Program, with revitalizing interest. 

Under the program, those who receive food stamps can receive reimbursements -- up to $60 per month for a family of four -- for money spent on fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, farm stands and community-supported agriculture, or CSA, programs. The goal is to encourage better nutrition while supporting local agriculture.

Five of six farmers who sell at the Lowell market participate in HIP, Brittain said; once it took off, the benefits became clear.

"It really increased the number of people we're having at the market, which brought in other people who weren't food stamp recipients themselves," she said. "My vendors can be so pleased with the volume of clients they have now compared to a few years ago."

Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.